Capital Project & School Configuration Update

The Board of Education has rescheduled a special meeting for Friday, Mach 20, to continue deliberating over the three school configuration options under consideration. This update represents the information discussed at the March 7 capital project workshop and the March 9 Board meeting. A decision on the configuration options is expected this month.

Capital Project Overview

The district is planning a capital project to go before voters in December 2020 that will address the following: the selected school configuration option; facilities enhancements and modernization for the future of programs; infrastructure needs to maintain the schools; and projected enrollment growth. Because of the potential work and the district’s current debt structure, long-range improvement planning may be spread over multiple capital project voters in the coming years. In addition to potential classroom additions, it is anticipated that some instructional space inside schools will be modernized/updated based on the district’s program vision, which promotes more teamwork and hands-on, project-based learning. For the proposal that will go before voters on Dec. 15, 2020 (tentative), the district’s fiscal advisers have estimated that the district could undertake a project between $52 and $83 million at no additional tax impact due to retiring debt. The Board of Education is focused on a capital improvement proposal that carries no additional tax impact

School Configuration Options

The school configuration options under consideration are:

Option #1: The current configuration of five K-5 Elementary Schools and two 6-8 Middle Schools.

Option #2: Five K-4 elementary schools, a 5-6 lower middle school and a 7-8 upper middle school serving students districtwide.

Option #3: Five K-5 elementary schools and a single grade 6-8 middle school serving students districtwide.

Evolution of the Single Middle School Option

The idea for a single district middle school was first raised by middle school faculty members at a capital project forum this fall. It was one of the three options that remained after the Board narrowed its configuration choices this past fall. At that time, the idea was that Van Antwerp could potentially serve as an Early Learning Center with District Offices. However, given the costs involved with PreK, the Early Learning Center was no longer part of this option, which left it as a single middle school located at Iroquois and Van Antwerp not being utilized for academic purposes. It is important to note that this has not been proposed or recommended. It is the way that the process has evolved, and district leaders believe it is important to consider all of the information at hand. Another factor that has entered the conversation more recently is the scale of work that will be needed at Van Antwerp due to its age and other factors. Yet, it has also been pointed out that it’s routine for school districts to need to make significant investments in older school buildings that are community assets.

Cost of the Options

The district’s architects have provided cost information in terms of order of magnitude: The first option, the existing configuration, would be the most expensive, while the other two options would cost less and are within a similar range. Once the Board selects an option and the overall capital project scope is determined, specific cost information of the proposed work will be communicated widely with voters.

A Variation on Option #2

One idea that emerged in the Board of Education’s workshop represents a variation on Option #2, the 5-6/7-8 option:

  • Locate the 5-6 school at Hillside Elementary School and construct an addition there to accommodate the student enrollment and the 5-6 grade-level grouping; and
  • Convert Van Antwerp Middle School to a K-4 elementary school that serves students in the area currently served by Hillside.

The feasibility of this option still needs to be assessed. It potentially offers two benefits: With less of the Van Antwerp building being utilized (as a K-4 elementary school), it might require less in renovations and it keeps this historic, neighborhood school in use.

Academic Program Opportunities

Research presented in January by the Capital Project Advisory Committee indicated that there is no single grade-level configuration that is the best and the quality of the academic program is more important than the configuration. Based on feedback shared by Niskayuna’s middle-level teachers and families, there is concern that the current configuration offers limited ability to enhance schedule and programs. By bringing all grade-level students together earlier, Option #2 (all Niskayuna students come together in 5th grade) and Option #3 (all students come together in 6th grade) provide greater opportunities for: program and schedule enhancements; professional development and teacher collaboration; and overall community building among students and families. Additionally, the feedback suggests that the 5th grade experience could be strengthened and enriched in a 5-6 building.

This conversation about academic program opportunities is seen as the key driver of the Board’s configuration decision and will be further discussed at the March 20 meeting.