EDITORIAL: Postpone the Middle School vote

HOW MANY SCHOOLS DO WE NEED? Not as many as we’ve got. There just aren’t enough kids around here anymore. Check the census figures. Columbia County had 63,096 residents in the official 2010 headcount. One year later the government estimated that the county’s population had dropped by 546 people. Hey! Come back. We need you…

It’s no wonder local school boards, backed by taxpayers, keep mothballing the brick buildings that a couple of generations ago we couldn’t build fast enough to meet the demand for classroom space. Up and down the Hudson Valley and around much of upstate New York, districts see the trend line on the graph of student enrollment heading sharply downward, and no place in this region looks worse than Columbia County.

The regional development organization Pattern for Progress recently used data from Ivy League brainiacs at Cornell and to confirm the bad news. It showed that Columbia County would have a 30% drop in public school enrollment by the year 2020, the most severe of the nine counties from here to New York City.

The trend has already affected the physical shape of local education; Hudson closed the Greenport school a few years ago and more recently Ichabod Crane unloaded both the Martin H. Glynn School in Valatie and the Martin Van Buren School in Kinderhook. Now the Chatham Board of Education, like its Ichabod Crane neighbors, plans to consolidate classes on its nearby campus. So why all the fuss over empty halls at the century-old

Chatham Middle School when other schools were closed with far less push-back from the public?

Timing plays a big role. Greenport Elementary and the two ICC school buildings were closed around the time of major cutbacks in school budgets brought on by the recession. Scores of educators and support staff lost their jobs and others felt their livelihoods threatened. Giving up a few buildings to preserve education itself didn’t seem like as big a sacrifice given how many people were experiencing severe economic pain. Now that the immediate crisis has passed and state funding for education has stabilized for the moment, it gets harder to argue for the urgency of changing the way we do things.

The Chatham proposal also differs from what other districts faced in that Chatham cannot lock the doors and walk away from the Middle School even if school officials wanted to. The Chatham Public Library, one of only two public libraries in the state run by a school district, is physically part of the Middle School, as is the district bus garage, for all practical purposes. The district has not presented specific plans for a new library or garage.

Meantime, there’s unease in the community about the vote the school board will take later this month on whether to close the Middle School and then seek voter approval this fall to spend $12- to $14-million to upgrade and expand Chatham High and the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School, which would take in the grades now at the Middle School.

A big change like this will never win universal support in the community. But the possibility exists that resistance to the proposal won’t sway the board from its determination to close the Middle School but could lead to the defeat of the spending referendum, leaving the project in limbo or, worse, underfunded if the board insists on closing the school.

The board has the best interests of the community at heart but it seems to have lost sight of the political task it faces. For other districts that task was helped by the economic crisis and the belief that district officials were doing what they must in an emergency. But the emergency, while far from having passed, is no longer imminent–it won’t motivate voters.

The alternative to governing by crisis management is leadership based on a shared vision, and that’s where neither the board nor the administration has succeeded so far. There has been talk of maintaining programs and even of expanding them, but it seems like it’s an afterthought or a defensive posture meant to counter criticism rather than build enthusiasm.

These are lean times, and closing a school is a recognition of that, regardless of how it’s portrayed. But the board has work to do before it can win wide acceptance that the plans advanced so far are the best we can do with the resources we have.

The board should postpone its vote set for later this month and hone its vision before the crisis returns.

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