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Fewer students, one less school?

By Frank Rizzo
MONTICELLO — February 12, 2010 — The numbers (and their consequences) were brutal, and so the numbers (as in a large crowd) came out for last Thursday’s Monticello Board of Education meeting.
Superintendent Pat Michel set a sober tone at the start with a preview of next year’s budget choices.
“What we’re facing as a community, fiscally, for our school systems is very dire,” Michel said.
He noted that last year the district faced a large cut in state aid, and one option considered was closing a school – either Cornelius Duggan in White Lake or Emma Chase in Wurtsboro.
“We didn’t have to make the difficult choices because of the [federal] fiscal stimulus,” he said.
New York State, however, already used up the stimulus moneys and Michel quoted NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli as noting that school districts face a “funding cliff.”
Among the numbers Michel put up in his PowerPoint presentation: To keep the tax increase at 0 percent, the budget would have to be cut by over $5 million. And, as he reminded the audience, schools have control over only about 20 percent of the budget (in Monticello’s case, about $15 million of the $76 million.) The rest is state- and federally-mandated and tied to contractual obligations.
Paul Seversky, a consultant with the New York State School Boards Association, then provided a lengthy presentation of his “School Buildings Pupil Capacity and Enrollment Projection/
Demographic Study.”
Seversky’s basic finding is that – taking into account the board-mandated minimum class sizes — the district is using about 79 percent of its building capacity in grades K-5. Breakdowns are as follows:
“Benchmarked to the class size policy goals of the district:
K-5 facilities are currently at 78.7 percent of operating capacity
6-8 facilities are currently at 74.5 percent of operating capacity
9-12 facilities are currently at 103.8 percent of operating capacity.”
The study reads, “It is recommended that the district explore serving the K-5 enrollment with one less school building.… The total current K-5 enrollment of the district is 1485 pupils. Therefore, an option for the district is to serve K-5 pupils in three schools instead of four. On first scan it seems serving Duggan pupils in the other three elementary schools might be most viable.”
Duggan had the greatest gap between the October 2009 enrollment and its building capacity – 31.9 percent.
Having written (and said) it, Seversky was quick to add that questions needed to be asked, such as:
“How would the transportation routes change?
How long would be the longest bus ride for any child?
What changes in instructional and instructional support staff might occur?
What does the district do with an unused building?”
If the district were to close the elementary school, Seversky added, he recommended spending $40-50,000 per year to maintain it until circumstances changed to justify opening it.
Except for the high school, Seversky concluded, “student population due to residential housing development in all likelihood will be able to be accommodated in the existing K-8 facility resources of the district. There is currently no functional capacity room to accommodate an influx of such new enrollments at the high school.”
Seversky admitted that the housing market was a major variable, and not enough information was available to make an informed decision.
Though school board members had already received the study, this was their first opportunity to discuss it publicly.
“We’re not here to talk about closing the school,” Bob Kunis said. “This [study] is just a starting point. There are a lot of things we have to consider.”
Addressing the audience, Kunis said, “The bottom line is there is a lot we can do. We need to know what your wants and needs are… We can’t do it without your help.”
“The community has an opportunity to have input,” agreed board member Jo-Anne Peabody. “It’s a lot harder for us to make decisions if we don’t have your input.”
Referring to the discussions on closing Duggan a year ago, Legislator David Sager commented, “It’s deja-vu all over again. You’re talking about the fabric of the community. Simply closing a school will have repercussions, it will have an impact on population.”
Bethel Supervisor Daniel Sturm, in whose district Duggan is situated, stated that his township is growing, and “in order to continue to grow, we need the Duggan School to remain open to attract and retain families.”
Days after the meeting, Superintendent Michel summed up his feelings.
“The last thing in the world I want to do is close a school,” he said. “Nobody wants that. It hurts the community and disrupts the life of children.”
Referring to the current fiscal climate, he added, “We’re in undiscovered country. I’ve never seen anything like it in my 24 years in education.”

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