BETHLEHEM — The School Board recently rolled out its enrollment projections for the coming year and beyond. The projections indicate that enrollment, which peaked in 2006-07 at 5,182 students, will continue to decline into the foreseeable future, with 4,135 students forecast in 2022-23. The class of 2018-19 is projected at 4,425 students, a decline of 2.1 percent from this year.
However, district resident Judy Abbott is critical of the numbers projected by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, saying that the report admittedly does not account for all possible residential growth within the district, parts of which are building at a significant pace. She said that is the reason that the district should decline selling the Clarksville Elementary School building to the county sheriff’s office, a move the Board of Education has been mulling for months and seems eager to move ahead with.
The Albany County Sheriff’s Department has occupied the building for about six years now and, in 2016, Sheriff Craig Apple approached the district about purchasing the building. After the move proved unpopular with some district residents, many of whom were unhappy with the closure of the school in the first place, the board held off approving the sale. The $325,000 deal, originally a lease-to-buy agreement, now sits before them as an outright purchase, more than half of which would be paid for with in-kind patrol services. However, critics have pointed out that the district still owes more than $1.6 million in debt service for $4 million worth of improvements made to the school in 2006.
Apple has indicated that if he is unable to buy the building in the near future, he is likely to move elsewhere and board members are concerned that, if he vacates and the district can find no other occupants, it could drag on district finances and make the neighborhood less safe.
In a letter to the board and district administrators, Abbott criticized enrollment projections done (by a different company) in 2003, after which Eagle Elementary was built—not long before Clarksville was closed due to declining enrollment. She said she called CDRPC and determined that the projection model they used was intended for use during stable periods of enrollment, and urged the district “not to waste “a huge capital asset,” pending more information about the impact of ongoing and future growth.
This is the second consecutive year the commission was hired to produce enrollment numbers for the district and last year it came pretty close—within 1 percent at all three school levels.
In her email, Abbott pointed out two places in the CDRPC report where the commission recommends that the district keep a close eye on residential development, as certain factors could significantly affect enrollment, such as the number of aging “empty nesters” that might decide this is the year they’re moving south and sell to a young couple with children.
According to BCSD Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe, “The district is very attuned to projections contained in the report regarding residential development in the town of Bethlehem. That is why the district requests, and receives, regular reports from town officials on the number of residential units in the planning or construction phase, the type of proposed housing units, whether multi-family or single-family, and the estimated number of units that could become occupied in a particular year.”
District enrollment numbers not only matter in terms of where to fit the kids, accurate projections help officials to allocate resources and ensure that the district is able to provide the most possible resources to the most possible children in the most effective way. Teachers are hired and fired based on enrollment, and programs may be added or cut.
For her part, however, Abbot seems primarily concerned with the historic Clarksville school. She asked the board to put the matter before district voters in May, “At a minimum,” she wrote, “please save the remaining 4.7 acres that the sheriff isn’t using to accommodate future growth.”
While the district has acknowledged that the report was unclear regarding the pace of upcoming residential construction, it said CDRPC assumed the “relatively slow manner” in which currently active developments are going up is likely to continue.
“We are aware that the single-family home development would have the greatest impact on our enrollment,” said BCSD Superintendent Jodi Monroe. “We also understand that the pace at which these properties are built and occupied is important to track.” Calling it a “significant variable,” she said CDRPC is careful to keep track of how development moves forward.
Abbott scoffed at the idea that families don’t live in apartments, “especially in times when they might not have great credit.” She said she feels the district intends to use the declining enrollment projections to sell the sale of Clarksville to the public, and that they’re doing it out of a sense of debt to the sheriff. She said she would prefer to see them prioritize the needs of the district and its students.
While some board members have asked for additional information, such as whether or not the building might be sold at a higher price to a different buyer, all seem to be eager to bring the matter to a resolution. The discussion and vote were removed from the Feb. 8 board meeting agenda, and there is no mention of the proposal in the agenda for this evening, Wednesday, Feb. 28. However, the board is likely to take up the matter again in coming weeks—unless the sheriff tires of waiting for approval and opts to simply find another location.
“It seems to me,” said Abbott, who is often in attendance at the bi-monthly board meetings, “that Bethlehem school board’s legal responsibility is to make sure that they are good stewards of two things: the fiscal health of the school district and the capital assets. Those are two very important things.”