School’s future hangs on board’s vote

CHATHAM–Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo formally recommended last week that the Board of Education close the Middle School on Woodbridge Avenue and consolidate students into the district’s remaining two buildings. The board is scheduled to vote on the matter June 25.

Due to declining enrollment and looming financial pressures the board commissioned a facilities study by a group of consultants to explore the possibility of consolidating students into two buildings. The study, completed last year, found that the greatest savings would be realized by closing the Middle School, moving the 6th grade to the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School and grades 7 and 8 to the High School building. If the board votes in favor of consolidation later this month, students would no longer attend classes at the Middle School building effective September 2015.

Parts of the Middle School building are nearly a century old. The structure used to be a high school.

The plan Ms. Nuciforo presented last week also includes moving district offices to the old Middle School building, preparing the building for both educational and community activities, and construction at the other two buildings to make them better able to accommodate the new grades and programs. She said her recommendation was developed around a guiding principle: “to provide the best possible education for Chatham students at a cost the community can afford.”

“If we don’t consolidate, we have to ask ourselves: What’s the alternative?” Ms. Nuciforo said.
District Business Administrator Michael Chudy has projected that, with current trends, Chatham will run out of its reserve funds by 2018. He said total net savings and cost avoidance resulting from consolidation would be over $450,000 per year.
In addition to realizing savings, Ms. Nuciforo said the consolidation plan would improve scheduling flexibility and make time more efficient for teachers, because teachers for music, health and other subjects divide their time between the Middle and High School buildings.

“It starts to limit opportunities for students,” the superintendent said. “Bringing people back into one building on one schedule is one of the things we’re trying to achieve.”

Ms. Nuciforo also presented possibilities for use of the Middle School building after the students leave. The district is looking into working with Columbia-Greene Community College to offer college courses at the building, which would allow Chatham High School students the opportunity to begin earning college credits.

Ms. Nuciforo said another possibility is to provide space to startup businesses that agree to offer internships to students. Other ideas include a daycare facility and community use of the auditorium and gym.

The plan for consolidation presented by Ms. Nuciforo would require a capital improvements to the remaining buildings estimated to cost $13.8 million. The upgrades would include adding four classrooms, a music room and a fitness room to the High School, and a gym at the elementary school. There would also be renovations to several existing classrooms, both cafeterias, the High School auditorium, and upgrades to the High School library. Further, the project includes upgrades to security and to the campus drive.

Ms. Nuciforo said the addition of a fitness room will allow the school to create a science room and small group instruction area out of the space currently used as the fitness room.
“That seemed like a better use of that space,” she said.

The addition to the elementary school gym would bring it up to regulation size and would seat about 300 people. The capital project would have to be approved by district voters in November.

Board member David O’Connor said he fears that the community “doesn’t believe the numbers.” He asked what would happen if the board votes to consolidate, but then the community votes down the capital project.

“We’d have to change the plan of how to consolidate,” responded Ms. Nuciforo. “If people don’t support the capital project, the enrollment issues aren’t going to go away, the program issues aren’t going to go away, and the financial issues aren’t going to go away”

Board member Craig Simmons expressed concern over potential space issues that would result from adding grades to the other two buildings.
Ms. Nuciforo said the proposed construction would provide flexibility at the High School, adding that the Middle School building is the district’s smallest building in terms of square footage and classrooms. As for the Dardess School, she said that there are eight classrooms in the lower level that can be used.

“They can absorb the 6th grade with room to spare,” she said.
Board member James Marks said he wants to do what is needed to preserve programs and avoid cuts. He said that once a program is cut, it never returns.

“We’re not just talking about preserving things,” added Ms. Nuciforo. “We’re talking about making things better for our students.”
There is a final town hall meeting regarding the issue scheduled for June 11 at 6:30 p.m. in the Chatham High School auditorium.

Also at the May 28 meeting, the board:
*Recognized three retirees. Laura Herbert has been with Chatham for 24 years, Noreen Perkins is retiring after 18 years, and John Gould holds the record as the longest-serving teacher in the history of Chatham, with 41 years
*Abolished a full-time bus mechanic position and a part-time Family and Consumer Science position effective June 30
*Created an Elementary Dean of Students position and a part-time teacher’s aide position effective July 1.

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