Chatham grapples with closure plan

CHATHAM–The  Board of Education held its seventh and final town-hall-style meeting last week regarding its upcoming decision on consolidation of the district. Around 70 people from the community attended the three-and-a-quarter-hour session in the high school auditorium, where they heard information on topics concerning the issue and voiced questions and concerns.

Declining enrollment and looming financial pressures have led the board to explore possibilities of consolidating students into two buildings from the current three. A facilities study completed last year found that moving students from the Middle School on Woodbridge Avenue to the nearby elementary and high school campus would be provide the greatest savings. Under a plan recommended by Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo, the 6th grade go to the Mary E. Dardess (MED) Elementary School, and 7th and 8th grades relocate to the high school. District offices would be moved to the Middle School, and the rest of that building would be for other purposes still being discussed.

The board will vote June 25 whether to proceed with consolidation. If consolidation is approved, the new class configuration format would take effect in September 2015.

To consolidate, the board envisions spending $13.8 million for changes and upgrades at the two schools. If there is no consolidation, the district would still need to spend $5.6 million on upgrades. Either way the board expects to put a capital spending referendum before voters this fall.

Background

Ms. Nuciforo told the June 11 gathering that the board began discussing ways to be more efficient in the fall of 2010 and then appointed a team from Questar III BOCES to examine the feasibility and identify the savings from consolidation. That study was presented to the board at this time last year.

Ms. Nuciforo said the facilities study is available to the public online and that the board also had a committee of 25 teachers and administrators develop a list of specifications for what a 7-12 program should have if consolidation occurs. She said feedback was gathered from focus groups made up of parents, students, faculty, and community members.

Speaking at the June 11 meeting, district resident John McGowan thanked the board and Ms. Nuciforo for their efforts to “come up with solutions to reduce costs so that programs can be kept going.”

Steve Gilger said he was alarmed that the community was not involved with the early part of the process, but Ms. Nuciforo said the process has been public from the beginning.

Board President Melony Spock said the board has sought community input but “the attendance has been very low at times.” She added that the feedback the board has received has led to changes.

Superintendent Nuciforo said that due to decreased state aid and the state property tax rate cap, Chatham is projected to deplete its reserves by 2020.

The district has reduced expenses in recent years through staffing cuts, updating phone technology, installing solar panels on the MED building and implementing the “one-bell” transportation system, which eliminated separate bus runs for each building.

“We have worked really hard to be more efficient,” said Ms. Nuciforo, who is recommending consolidation to delay the depletion of the reserves.

Resident Teresa Baresnfeld said Chatham has a great reputation for its programming. “When you start making cuts to support a building you don’t need, you would wonder where the priorities are,” she added.

One resident asked why the board doesn’t wait a few years before making the decision so that enrollment declines would eliminate the need for the $13.8-million capital project.

Ms. Nuciforo said that the sooner the savings are realized, the better position the district will be in down the line.

A graph presented by District Business Administrator Michael Chudy showed a 40-year downward trend in enrollment. In 1974, the district had around 2100 students; now there are 1207. An independent 10-year enrollment study commissioned by the district in 2011 concluded the downward trend would continue for the next 10 years. Mr. Chudy said that in the 2015-16 school year, when consolidation would take effect, the district is projected to have 1123 students.

Former board member John Wapner favored consolidation but said a more long-term plan for school funding is also needed. “This effort is really commendable because it helps kids,” said Mr. Wapner. “But there’s only so much you can do.”

Consolidation Savings

Frank Nizer, a former business administrator who was on the facilities study team, said that consolidation might save $797,809 in the first year by eliminating a principal and two secretaries, a librarian, a nurse, three custodians, food service, a teacher, a greeter and their benefits, and by reducing operating expenses at the Middle School building. Bills for electricity and heating would be reduced by at least 30% with students relocated. With declining enrollment, Mr. Nizer said it’s possible for the district to see an additional $84,000 in savings during the second year after consolidation by eliminating another teaching position.

Mr. Chudy said the district would use $2 million in reserve funds and borrow $11.8 million over 15 years for the consolidation improvements. He said the state would reimburse the district for half of the project costs, leaving a $437,814 annual debt payment. But the savings from consolidation would produce a net savings of $360,000 per year.

Mr. Chudy said that if the district does not consolidate, the debt for the $5.66 million in needed capital improvements would cost the district $91,901. “The difference is there is no savings to offset that,” he said. “So not consolidating would increase our budget by that amount.”

Asked by a resident what would happen if the board decides to consolidate but the community votes down the capital project. Ms. Nuciforo said the plan for consolidation would have to be adjusted.

Board member David O’Connor said the Woodbridge Avenue building is the smallest of the district’s three schools, with 21 classrooms. It is also the oldest and contains the least modern instructional spaces and the least parking. If students are consolidated into the two newer buildings, the auditorium, gymnasium, and athletic fields at the Middle School would continue to be used by the district, and the district offices would move there.

Mr. O’Connor said the district is also looking into leasing office space to businesses, allowing a day-care to use the facilities, expanding the public library, and establishing a community college learning center.

Responding to concerns that the building might be sold, Ms. Nuciforo said the district will still need the facilities and it would not make sense for the building to be sold or abandoned, at least in the short-term. The Chatham Public Library, which is run by the school board, is physically attached to the building. The bus garage would remain where it is.

“This could be a real community center,” said Mr. McGowan, who praised the ideas for the Middle School.

But Luis Castro said the district chose the wrong building to close. “If it’s good for all these things listed, then it’s good enough for the students,” he said.

Ms. Nuciforo said that after consolidation the 7th and 8th grades would have their own section of the high school, including four new classrooms. Scheduling would keep middle school and high school students separate except in the hallways. She doesn’t believe contact between younger and older students will be an issue based on visits school staff made to five other districts with consolidated programs, including Taconic Hills and New Lebanon.

Parent Jennifer Mickel said she is disappointed that her 2nd child will miss out on “the Middle School experience” and pleaded with the board to take the time “to do it right.”

Board member Mike Clark spoke about the proposals for upgrades and expansion of the buildings called for as part of consolidation, among them an expanded music room at the high school. “We are making a long-term commitment to music,” he said.

Among the upgrades planned by the board is the addition of an additional lane of traffic coming out onto Woodbridge Avenue.

Wayne Coe pointed out that there is only one route in and out of the campus and asked what was done to address that.

Ms. Nuciforo said the board looked into that a couple years ago and found that the land around the school is a protected wetland, “So the limited assistance that would be provided by a second egress is far outweighed by extraordinary costs and the question of whether it could even be permitted.”

In a closing statement, board member James Marks said the board has an opportunity to save money while providing better education.

“I will not look at kids in this district and tell them: I’m sorry, we had to diminish the quality of your education for sentimentality,” he said.

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