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January 31, 2014

Board of Education to continue facilities discussion on February 4

A look at the why, the what, and the what next of the process

Niskayuna's schools face a serious problem - chronic reductions in promised state aid that have threatened student programs across New York, Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio told an audience of about 200 at the Board of Education's meeting on January 28, as the Board continued to review potential school configuration changes.

This discussion about the possibility of closing a school for next year will continue at the Board's meeting on February 4, with a decision anticipated that evening.

In Niskayuna, the loss of promised state aid has totaled nearly $12 million over the last four years. As a result, the district has made reductions in each of those years, reducing the full-time equivalent of 176 positions and identifying millions of dollars in operational and administrative efficiencies in order to keep the cuts as far from student programs as possible.

At the same time, capacity in both the district's elementary schools and middle schools is under-utilized. Elementary students are also distributed inequitably across the five schools, resulting in a wide variance in class sizes. A comprehensive middle school study completed in 2011 suggested many ways to improve the program and make it more equitable - including the prospect of having all middle school students on one campus.

"That's the context for the current discussion of the school configuration options," Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said. "We have ongoing fiscal challenges and not much left to look at for cuts without impacting students directly. The questions we are wrestling with include, is it better to close a school in order to preserve the programs that we know prepare students for future success and opportunities? Are there opportunities we can take advantage of with a decision about school facilities?"

Against this backdrop, the Board of Education charged a community advisory committee last year with investigating school configuration options to meet student needs through 2018. After five months of work, in December 2013 the Facilities Utilization Advisory Committee recommended that the Board of Education consider three options: close an elementary school; operate four K-4 elementary schools, a grades 5-6 school and a grades 7-8 school; and close Van Antwerp Middle School and have a grades 6-8 middle school campus at Rosendale and Iroquois.

A decision is expected soon so that if the Board does decide to close a school, there will be sufficient time to implement the change successfully. This would also allow the savings to be incorporated into the district's 2014-15 budget process.

A budget gap of $2.6 million is currently estimated for next year. Closing an elementary school would save an estimated $415,000 at a minimum and closing Van Antwerp would save a minimum of $568,000.

Since the advisory committee presented the configuration options in December, the Board has been reviewing them in the context of its ongoing strategic planning process. In their initial discussions about the options, Board members noted that having a 5-6 school and a 7-8 school would add another student transition, and that the Rosendale-Iroquois middle school campus model calls for the closure or repurposing of two schools – Rosendale and Van Antwerp. (Closing Van Antwerp and consolidating all grades 6-8 students at Iroquois has not been an option because there is not capacity for all of the students in one building.)

Members have looked most closely at the option to close an elementary school, which was presented in detail at the January 28 meeting. Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Deb Shea highlighted the programmatic benefits of consolidating the elementary program into four buildings. These include: Greater equity in class sizes across the district; three class sections at each grade level, which provides for greater flexibility in student groupings and a greater ability to provide targeted and accelerated instruction; and a concentration of resources in areas such as special education and library media services.

The January 28 presentation also included information about which elementary school would be closed, as well as the capacity that the remaining four buildings would have to accommodate any future growth. (The presentation is available here.) If an elementary school is closed, district leaders said it would be Birchwood, information about capacity and the number of students impacted. Along with Glencliff, Birchwood is one of the two buildings with the fewest number of regular classrooms, which means that closing either school would provide the district with the greatest remaining capacity. Closing Birchwood would impact the fewest students, and Glencliff's geographic location would complicate student transportation services if it were closed.

The January 28 meeting also included about 2 hours of comments from the community. Board members continue to express their gratitude for community's engagement on this issue, and the expression of concerns, questions, excitement about new opportunities, and varied perspectives that have come at meetings and through e-mails, phone calls, and personal conversations.

At the meeting, Board members requested more information about the K-4, 5-6, and 7-8 configuration option and, in particular, its ability to provide capacity at the elementary level to accommodate students in the future. The Board also requested more information about other factors that could impact next year's budget. This information will be presented on February 4.

As in previous years, no single action is going to close a $2.6 million gap. Whether or not a school is closed, it will take a series of decisions to arrive at a balance budget for 2014-15.

If an elementary school is closed for next year, the district will redraw the elementary boundaries for each of the remaining schools to ensure that the student populations are balanced. Given the current imbalance, district leaders are planning to do this if all schools remain open.

"There are going to be tradeoffs involved with any course of action, including if we continue to operate all of our schools," Superintendent Salvaggio said. "In that event, we would have to find equivalent savings, which would have to involve greater cuts to student programs, given the scale of the reductions of recent years." The district's current budget is about $760,000 less than its budget of four years ago, 2010-11.

"It would be irresponsible of us not to explore and address these issues of fiscal stewardship, enrollment imbalance, and programmatic needs," Salvaggio added. "We know this is a difficult process. Our approach has been reasonable and sensible, and has involved the community. We are listening and we care. We know that at the end of the day, every Niskayuna student will attend a great school next year with high caliber instruction from the same dedicated and caring staff."

If a school is closed, Salvaggio pledged the devotion of the entire district leadership team to doing everything it takes to make sure students and families have the smoothest transition possible.

The February 4 Board of Education meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Van Antwerp auditorium.