DELMAR — At a March 8 community meeting hosted by Bethlehem Central School District to discuss the future of Clarksville Elementary School, residents of the Clarksville hamlet of New Scotland gave the clear impression that they have felt cut off from the school district ever since that building was closed in 2011.
The Albany County Sheriff’s Department, which has been occupying more than half of the school building since 2012, has expressed interest in buying the historic structure and making some changes to the property, but a number of district residents seemed unwilling to relinquish the idea that Clarksville Elementary will someday reopen as a school. Others accepted it as fact, but expressed distaste at the actions that led to the school’s closure and the repercussions of that closure — most glaringly, the long commutes now impacting young students residing in Clarksville, who must now be bussed to Eagle or Slingerlands Elementary schools, sometimes an hour each way.
“It feels like this is a done deal to me,” said a district resident. “And I’m not saying it’s a bad done deal, just a done deal. I think the battle was lost for the people of Clarksville when the school closed. So if we could just think about ways to make it better for them. They lost their community school; they’re not getting it back. My kids go to Hamagrael and I know how awesome that is to have and I would hate to lose that.” The same resident commented that Clarksville parents also lost their parent-teacher organization and have complained that they have never been fully integrated into their new schools.
During the Power Point presentation given at the outset of the meeting by BCSD Chief Financial Officer Judy Kehoe, the district did seem to be making the case for selling the building. Attendance projections, she said, are not expected to grow, re-opening the building as a school would be costly, finding alternative renters or sellers would likely be difficult (due, in part, to its historic designation) and retaining the empty building would still cost tens of thousands a year.
“We’ve been there for five years,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, whose lease on the building expires on July 31. “We’ve always tried to be good neighbors.” Apple talked about his vision for the building, which would include turning more than half into a fully functioning police station and seeking granting to use the rest as a community and outreach center that could be used to host youth sports programs. He also expressed interest in bringing county services closer to the hill towns in the hopes that they will be more likely to access those services.
Many Clarksville residents said they appreciated the sheriff’s presence, but were concerned about increased traffic and modifications to the property, which Apple said would include a new parking garage. Those who live nearest the property seemed resistant to increasing the presence of siren-equipped emergency response units, which already operate out of that location. The preservation of certain historical markers — such as the peace pole, building sign and interior artwork that has remained on the walls during the sheriff’s tenancy — was also a question on many minds. Kehoe made a few suggestions as to where some of those items could be moved, while Apple said he would like to keep the peace pole and a popular mural of Clifford the Big Red Dog, which he claimed has a calming effect.
One neighboring Clarksville resident asked the sheriff if he was willing to share the station’s fiber-optic cable connection, which he said was connected through his front yard.
Residents were clearly still upset over the events that lead up to the closing of the school. a decision that School Board President Matt Downey characterized as a difficult decision. At the time, the decision was made to help fill a projected $4 million budget gap. More than 200 people attended the meeting where the vote took place, succeeding 5-2. Then-Board President James Dering, along with board member Lynne Lenhardt, felt the school should remain open at least until a facilities committee could study the closing’s enrollment impact on other schools in the district, but the proposal didn’t garner enough support for serious consideration and was instead bypassed in favor of a vote on the closing.
“I’m hearing a lot of frustration even from people who want to sell the building,” said one resident. “Because Clarksville is part of our community and we did not do right by those families.” The same resident commended Apple and the sheriff’s department, saying that they could not ask for a better neighbor, but said she wasn’t clear what the community would get out of the sale other than keeping the building occupied.
“What happens if,” she asked, echoing sentiments repeated by several other speakers who doubted the accuracy of the enrollment projections used by the district and voiced concern that the classrooms may be needed sooner than currently thought. “Are you guys going to build another school? Are you going to build another school out in Clarksville? I think some answers to those kind of questions to address the needs of the community that got left behind would be appropriate.”
At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, March 15, board members talked about the responses they heard at the March 8 meeting. “I really do appreciate how many people from the community came,” said Board member Charmaine Wijeyesinghe. “I’m not sure what we should do. I know it will evolve over time, but one thing I heard loud and clear was an issue about bussing and transportation.” Wijeyesinghe suggested looking at the district’s transportation budget and seeing if it would be possible to add more bus routes out to Clarksville as a way to reduce travel times.
Board member Jonathan Fishbein, who was not on the board when Clarksville was closed, said, “What I heard at that forum was that the public felt that — certainly, at least, a large number — felt that they wanted it to remain as a school.” Their apparent second choice, to keep the building occupied by something other than a school, he said, “is sort of the least worst option.
“They really preferred that it remain a school,” he said. “I think that needs to be acknowledged.”
“We need to follow up with Sheriff Apple and his team, obviously,” said BCSD Superintendent Jody Monroe. “This was a preliminary discussion and we wanted to get a sense from the community what their thoughts were.” Monroe said they will be following up with the sheriff’s department in coming weeks.