LATHAM During the next few years, the student population in North Colonie Central School District is projected by the school board to grow considerably faster than previous years-and board members are concerned that classrooms are already at or near capacity. The growth, which they say is due primarily to a recent uptick in residential building projects throughout Colonie, will likely add an estimated 487 new school-aged children to the district. In response to concerns that they will soon run out of physical space to accommodate the additional pupils, the board has begun exploring options to build additions to one or more of the existing schools.
“Quite honestly,” said North Colonie School Superintendent Joseph Corr. “I think we’re in a bubble of growth here in the town. And I think that’s something to be optimistic about but, at the same time, presents us with some concerns and considerations as a district.”
Most of North Colonie’s classrooms are already at the upper limit of their preferred teacher-to-student ratio-which, currently at 12.5 students per teacher, puts North Colonie on par with Guilderland and in relatively better shape than many surrounding communities-and district officials say they would prefer not to have to increase those limits. The reason that ratio seems low, said Corr, is that the statistics don’t differentiate between general education classes and special ed or specialized courses, where class sizes are necessarily much smaller. In the district’s elementary schools, the majority of classrooms contain from 25 to 30 students per teacher. “Those aren’t small; 23 to 24 students is a good size,” he said.
“We knew something a little odd was happening last year,” said Corr of the aberrant enrollment projections. “We’re extremely accurate; We’ve come up with a methodology that usually puts us well within two percent of our annual projections for enrollment growth, but we’re noticing that, for the first time in ten years, we have some sections-particularly in the Bought Hills school-where we’re exceeding our guidelines and had to overflow some students to other schools.”
The higher-than-average expected enrollment led school board members to wonder what they had missed, according to Corr, and so they hired the Capital District Regional Planning Commission late last year to provide additional information. “They presented us with their findings in April,” he said, adding that the commission identified seven development projects that would bring nearly 500 more children into the school district. (Population projections on CDRCP’s website predict that the entire Town of Colonie will grow by a little less than 2,000 residents over the next four years.)
“You just can’t keep overflowing,” said Taryn Kane, the communications specialist for North Colonie schools. “Eventually you’ll burst.” The overflow situation at Bought Hills, said Kane, is what precipitated the conversation about the potential building project. “You want to keep that student-teacher ratio where we want it to be, but obviously, you need the physical space to do that. And adding new space to one of the elementary schools is one way we talked about doing that.”
On Monday, Nov. 16, the Long Range Planning Committee of the North Colonie School Board took steps to start the process, identifying potential sites for expansion (Forts Ferry was mentioned as a likely option) and the potential environmental impacts of that expansion. According to New York State law, most projects proposed by any unit of local government require an environmental impact assessment (Title 6, Part 617 of New York Codes, Rules and Regulation, also known as the State Environmental Quality Review Act). The board agreed that they preferred to move quickly to have environmental assessments completed because, it being the final months of 2015, too much delay could set back the desired completion date by as much as a year.
“Sometimes the community doesn’t understand,” said Kane. “That, if it’s a capital project, the long wait it takes for funding to get there.”
“Absolutely,” said Corr. “You have to go to the voters if you’re going to borrow money. If you’re going to get authorization, you have to have your plans submitted to the State Board of Education and then their architects and engineers have to review the plans and sign off on them.” The time it takes to get from voter approval to “shovel-in-the-ground”, said Corr, can often take as long as 18 months.
“Right now,” Corr said on Nov. 24, “we’re trying to come up with a final recommendation as to which school we would choose to add onto on the north end, get some precise numbers as to what that would cost and look at how we would finance it. To expedite the process, we just completed the State Environmental Quality Review that we talked about last week-just to get the green light to allow us to proceed. It’s not like we’re going to do anything, but, if the decision is made to go ahead with this thing, we want to be out in front of it.”
SEQR is a self-enforcing statute. When implementing certain kinds of projects in New York state, the agency undertaking that project is responsible for ensuring that it meets environmental standards. This is done by naming a “lead agency” to oversee the assessment. While other agencies are allowed to bid for the job, it appears that this rarely happens and that it is often the project agency that ensures its own compliance.
“If history holds true,” said Corr. “No one else really wants to step up and do that job.” As well as the assessment, which he said cost the district nothing, Corr added that some preliminary work has been done by architects to visualize potential additions and that there is a small possibility of conducting a more in-depth demographic study.
“Because,” agreed Kane, “obviously we know that if the bubble is at the elementary schools, well, okay, but that’s only for a few years, and then we’re going to have kids move to the junior high and eventually to the high school and so, long range, it’s not just a problem at the elementary schools. I think that in the coming months, there will be more work done and more studies done on where we’re headed, really, as a district.”