Anger and sadness dominated the room after the North Colonie School District Board of education voted unanimously Thursday, Feb. 17, to close Maplewood Elementary School following a presentation from Superintendent Joseph Corr and comment from the school’s community.
It was a decision that had been researched and discussed since November as district budget forums had already been under way, but it was one that did not sit well with many of the parents in attendance. Once all of the board members raised their hands in support of closure, some parents stood up and walked out of the Media Center in Shaker High School, one of them grumbling loudly, What a waste of time.
Darlene Robideau, said that she would have agreed with the board’s decision if she felt that every avenue to save money had been explored, such as looking at other schools to close, but she doesn’t believe that happened.
`This is the wrong thing to do,` she said. `It hasn’t been fully studied and they made an inadequate decision.`
Another Maplewood parent warned the board of a possible divide between the parents in the Maplewood community and the rest of the district.
`I’d like to commend the general community on the general civility that I have seen over the course of the last several forums,` said Robert Drozd. `This could have devolved into a mean-spirited debate, and I haven’t seen that happen yet. I can see the continued division between North Colonie and Maplewood, and see that division continuing in the future as a result of this decision.`
Drozd said he would support the decision of closure if he knew that after extensive research and analysis, it was found to be the best result. But this wasn’t the case as, he said, noting that Maplewood was the only school looked at.
`No other school was considered. No other options were legitimately considered,` he said. `And in fact, at the last public forum, we were told directly no other school would be considered. So, the process is not complete. The analysis is invalid. You don’t have all of the information to make this decision. So I would encourage you to not make this decision.`
Referring to himself as a newcomer to the Maplewood community, Chris Savinsky, who is the father of two students at the school and what would have been another, had attended every budget forum before this meeting. He had been very vocal about Maplewood closing, and on this evening he prepared a five-minute response to the board.
`Many of us in Maplewood reject the legitimacy of this proposal and urge you to consider alternatives on grounds relating to the assurances given to our community in relation to the annexation,` he said. `Additionally, I personally reject this proposal on the grounds of it’s fiscal responsibility.`
Savinsky added the community was given a `firm handshake` by the district that assured them the school would stay open for the next seven to 10 years.
He then went on to call the closure an `act of hostility` and said the community was not given enough time to come up with an enrollment plan.
`I think in every crisis, there’s an opportunity and I think you’re missing ours,` he said. `The budget gap is large, much larger than the savings realized by the closing of Maplewood. Much, much larger. And if the predictions hold true, with the tax cap, it won’t be $3 million budget gap, it will be a $4-, $5- or $6 million budget gap. Of which you’ll plug $750,000 with the closing of Maplewood.`
Before any public comment was made and before the board had voted on the issue, Corr gave his explanation as to why he felt the closure of Maplewood was the best option for the district for it to make a dent in its deficit.
Some parents came up to Corr after the vote saying they felt Maplewood was targeted. He explained that there had been other options that were explored, but closing Maplewood was the best one.
`I understand the response, and I understand the anger that people feel and I think if it were my school and I had invested so much of my being, my family, I can understand their feeling,` he said. `I think it comes down to that there is a very simple way I can describe it. We have 62 students in Maplewood and then 21 who have been rezoned from Boght Hills and 26 that have been rezoned from Latham Ridge. We can accommodate the entire Maplewood resident community in one school. Is it ideal? No, it is not ideal at all. But at least it keeps them together and intact as a community.`
How much thought went into the decision?
Just before the vote was taken, parents began shouting out if the board was even going to let what they had heard that evening sink in.
`I find it appalling that [Mary Nardolillo, board president] had that whole paper written,` she said. `So how much did they actually listen to of what we had to say. It was all lip service.`
Nardollilo said there have been continuing conversations since last year’s budget season and that the idea of closing down Maplewood was brought up by the community, requesting the board look into it.
`Sadly, this is not a wonderful situation,; this is a horrible situation,` she said. `We’re going to be very deliberate and thoughtful about the children during the transition.`
When looking at a bigger elementary school to close, Corr said the district would have to consider moving around 370 to nearly 500 students to four or five different buildings.
`I think that would be very disruptive and not productive,` he said. `And that would be disruptive to the overall educational quality of the district and to the 5,000 to 6,000 students that we serve.`
The district is now on par to see a savings of $750,000, which would mostly come in personnel costs. Corr said it also hopes to gain $75,000 in revenue by repurposing the Maplewood building for other uses such as renting out the building to the YMCA or other childcare services.
During his presentation, Corr touched on the impact
Maplewood was having on the district, as there was a declining enrollment of the school, coming down from 165 when the school was annexed in 2007 to 109 for the 2010-2011 school year.
Corr did point out that in 1998, the student population at Maplewood was 192, where more than half of the students were not residents and were paying tuition to attend the school.
`It is testimony to the quality education people in that area people thought they were receiving,` he said.
But as enrollment declined, state aid started to decrease as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget showed a $2.1 million cut for the district for the 2011-2012 school year.
Incentive to annex
The district did receive, however, $30 million for the annexation in state aid over 14 years through the Reorganization Operating Incentive Aid. This made Robideau somewhat suspicious, as she referred to a study done in 2007 that looked at the benefits of annexing Maplewood and also provided assurances to its residents for the future, which Corr said, were non-binding.
`This Feasibility Study that was done back in 2007, I sat on that board, was all lip-service with the assurances,` she said. `They knew then what the outcome was going to be. They did it. They took the $30 million over 14 years and were going to close our school at some point.`
At the end of the evening, Corr sat in the back as the room cleared out. It was an upsetting position for him and it certainly was not the reason he got into education.
`I didn’t get into education to deny opportunity and make life miserable for families,` he said. `I’m there to make life better and to provide more educational opportunities. I believe that’s the basis of this decision. I’m very sad for the families of Maplewood and they have very raw feelings about it right now. But I believe at the end of the day we will do the very best by those families and their children.“