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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 27, 2008

Up in arms: New Scotlanders protest big-box plans

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND — A crowd of over 275 New Scotland residents yesterday voiced nearly unanimous opposition to the large-scale development of the old Bender melon farm.

The 179-acre property near the intersection of the town’s two major thoroughfares, routes 85 and 85A, has been purchased by the Sphere Group, which expects to close next week.  The Sphere Group, a developer based near Syracuse, approached town zoning officials earlier this year, but hasn’t yet filed an application. The town of New Scotland provides for only one level of commercial zoning, which means that any sort of development on the property would be legal under current zoning laws.

“At this time, no application has been submitted, no legal plans are pending,” said New Scotland Supervisor Tom Dolin at Wednesday’s meeting. But he said that the zoning and planning boards had received a sketch in March; he said the sketch did not include the names of any of the businesses that might be included in the project.  Dolin said he suggested in February that the town board consider a moratorium to discuss whether the zoning laws reflect the town’s best interests.

Gregory Widrick, a managing partner of the Sphere Group, assured the townspeople that, while the company met informally with town officials, it wasn’t to circumvent the citizenry.  Before co-founding Sphere, Widrick was in charge of the “big box” division at The Pyramid Companies, where he worked with “any of your typical big-box stores — Best Buy, Circuit City, Sport Authority,” he told The Enterprise earlier. Pyramid owns Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall.

“The rumors that we are planning to build a 1.5-million square-foot enclosed mall… or a Wal-Mart are entirely untrue,” said Widrick.  He said that the developers were interested in designing a project that would “co-exist harmoniously” with the rural character of the town. 

Widrick urged the residents to consider some of the benefits to the area before ruling out the development, claiming that local real-estate revenue would go up 9,000 percent.  He also said that the school district would experience an increase in its revenues that would be equivalent to the enrollment of 40 percent of the current student body, but without actually adding a single student.  He also asked that the board not pass a moratorium on development, saying that the company would be conducting studies on the area before even submitting a design.

Voorheesville Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell had very different numbers, however. When the floor was opened for public comment, she said that she had calculated the amount of tax savings for school-district residents based on a 110,000-square-foot Wal-Mart (a much larger development than is being proposed) and said that families in New Scotland would save about $32 annually; residents outside the town with larger properties would probably save around $42.

Citizens speak out

So many people wished to comment on the issue that two lines were formed. Residents raised questions about the lack of infrastructure supporting the area such as sewer and water, as well as cost of constructing larger roads.  Many others simply voiced outright opposition to the Sphere Group’s plan.

“I pay the higher property taxes because I like the town the way it is,” said Janice Raleigh of Voorheesville.

New Scotland resident Ben Carlson was even more direct.  “From my standpoint, we need to have the moratorium so we can step back and say, ‘Is this appropriate?’” he said. Addressing Widrick, he said, “Nothing against you, but this is our town, and, quite frankly, I don’t trust you.”

Paula Adams, who lives near the proposed development site, asked residents in favor of the development to raise their hands and no one moved; when she asked for a show of opposition, nearly every hand in the room shot into the air.

“…The Bender farm isn’t something waiting to be ground up; it is worth preserving the way it is,” said Adams.  The statement was echoed by several other residents supporting the idea of using the area as green space. Edie Abrams, another resident who lives close to the farm, suggested residents “put our money where our mouth is.” 

“This land belongs to someone; you want green space, buy it,” said Abrams.

Environmental lawyer Jeffrey Baker of Clarksville urged the board to “adopt the moratorium, unequivocally.”

“Give the planning board the tools it needs to make certain the zoning laws meet the needs of the town,” he said.

Sphere perseveres

The Enterprise asked if the Sphere Group was put off by the crowd’s negative reaction. “Unfortunately, this is what you tend to get anytime a developer comes to a small town,” said Kathleen Bennett, an attorney for the Sphere Group during a phone interview after the meeting.  And of the town’s reaction, she said, “It wasn’t unexpected.”

She acknowledged that sewer and water issues would need to be addressed regardless of the scale of the development.  Bennett said that Widrick had asked the town not to adopt a moratorium because it would “halt the progress of the development for as long as the moratorium was in effect” but that the developer would continue to conduct research.

“It depends on the drafting of the moratorium,” said Bennett.  “Depending on how it is worded, there might not be any permits granted.  It could even prevent applications from being considered until the moratorium expires.” 

Although the 179-acre farm is assessed at $734,700, the asking price for the property is $4 million, Platform Realty Group told The Enterprise last month.  When queried as to the price actually paid for the farm, Bennett replied via e-mail, “Due to the terms of the deal and the financing, the developer is not willing to disclose the purchase price of the property at this time.  They will be closing in about a week and at that point the number will become a matter of public record.”

The property is owned by a group of doctors who are listed as MLF Enterprises, said Robert Murphy, vice president of Platform Realty.

The Enterprise also asked whether Target was being considered.  Bennett said that it was “still a potential option for this project” but later wrote an e-mail saying, “I am not certain about the pursuit of Target at this point after further discussions and would appreciate it if Target was not attributed [either yes or no] to me or the developer.” 

Board mulls $22M budget proposal
Costs up, enrollment down at VCSD

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND—As enrollment decreases, the school board plans to adopt a $22 million budget for next year that represents a 2.8 percent increase over this year’s spending plan. This budget does not include the hiring of any additional teachers or sending a second student to Tech Valley High School next year, despite the protests of parents who attended the Monday’s budget meeting. 

The board is slated to adopt the plan on April 7; voters will have their say on May 20. The budget for staff salaries is $15.6 million, which includes $4.7 million in fringe benefits for retirement and health and dental insurance.  The proposed budget provides for the salaries of 115 full-time teaching staff and six full-time administrators, including the addition of a new curriculum coordinator, whose duties will include the analysis of the standardized test scores. 

“Our kids spend a lot of time testing, and most of it is mandatory,” said board President David Gibson.  The curriculum coordinator will help target holes in curricula based on analysis of test scores, which will improve the quality of education for individual students, Gibson said.

District-wide enrollment for next year is projected to be 1,208, down from 1,232 students this year.

At the elementary school, projected enrollment for kindergarten is 76 students, with an average of 19 students per class.  Eighty-five students will enter first grade, with an average class size of 17 students, due to the creation of a permanent extra section in that grade.  Second grade will see 88 students with an average class size of 17.6, but this year’s second grade class is the second largest in the school, with 92 students going into third grade and an average class size of 23 students.  The fourth grade next year will have 89 students, with 22.3 students per class; the largest class, fifth grade, will see 98 students in four sections, with an average class size of 24.5.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell told The Enterprise earlier that the enrollment decline doesn’t impact the budget. “If you lose 10 to 15 kids, it’s across the board,” she said, and not enough in one place to cut staff positions. The current enrollment is nearly the same as it was 20 years ago, she said, with the peak year at 1,369 students in 1996-97.

Growth analysis

 Monday’s meeting began with a presentation by Chuck Voss and Leif Egstrom analyzing district-wide growth; the study concluded that the next two years would see a further drop in enrollment.  Although enrollment has decreased in 11 out of the last 12 years, some residents thought  that pending developments such as the Kensington Woods subdivision, which will include 160 single-family homes, and the prospective development of the Bender melon farm would increase the enrollment in the district.  Both Voss and Egstrom are associates at CT Male, an architecture and engineering firm; they conducted their research and presentation at no cost to the district. 

Many questions were raised, as Kensington Woods alone could theoretically bring over 200 children into the area.  Egstrom, a member of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said the cause of the falling enrollment is the lower number of children being produced.  He cited the birth-control pill and the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion as primary causes in the decline of births.

Another factor is the lack of residents moving into the area, which Egstrom said was largely due to the troubled real-estate market.  In 2002, New Scotland issued 2,072 building permits for the construction of single-family homes in the area.  In 2007 that number dropped to 944, so in five years less than half as many new homes were being.  Egstrom predicted that enrollment would be down for two years, at which point the real estate market should be recovering and enrollment could begin to climb upwards again. 

So who is going to be living in all the new subdivision housing?  According to Egstrom, it won’t be families with children.

“A lot of the housing is being designed for empty-nesters,” he said.

He went on to say that, even with regional commercial projects such as the nanotech chip factory, there wouldn’t be the kind of influx into the region that would lead to needed redevelopment factors such as improved infrastructure in largely rural New Scotland area.

“The nanotech factory, even with the ancillary businesses that would locate close to the factory, would still bring in less than a thousand new jobs…When we’re talking sub-thousand, even 1,200 new jobs, we’re still under 1 percent of the workforce in the Capital Area.”

Egstrom remarked that it was difficult to predict such things beyond a three- or four-year window, “because these things are very fluid.”

Parents want smaller classes

Many of the parents who attended the meeting didn’t come to hear about projected growth statistics; their main concern was hiring a sufficient number of teachers to keep class sizes low.  Parents of children in the current fourth-grade class petitioned the board when their students were in kindergarten. A class of 24 students had a higher-than-usual number of students with special needs and behavioral issues; the parents wanted to see an additional section created.  Their request was granted for third grade but the teacher was re-assigned when the class reached fourth grade, rather than staying with the class, as parents had expected. 

The additional teacher is now permanently transferred to the first grade, and, while many parents support an extra section for the first grade, they feel the board did not full fulfill its obligations to the current fourth grade, or to the voters who granted approval for the extra teacher. Many said it was unfair for children in the higher grades, whose class sizes had always been large, not to share in the benefits brought about by additional teachers and the resulting decreases in class size.

Kenneth Lein, principal of the elementary school, said that he had decided to focus on keeping the class sizes for younger children small, even at the cost of having fewer accredited teachers for the older students.  He indicated that the addition of teachers’ assistants would help make up for the higher number of students, but not everyone was convinced. 

“Having a teacher’s assistant in the classroom is not the same as having one teacher with a smaller class,” said a parent.  She pointed out that many of the special-education students have Individualized Education Programs that require a teaching assistant be present during instruction, which makes it less likely that the assistant would have time for the other children.

“I am glad to see the smaller class sizes for the younger grades, but I don’t like that it seems we have to take one or the other,” said another.  She called the faculty-to-student ratio “deceitful.”

Principal Lein made assurances that the teachers were doing an excellent job, which was corroborated by Superintendent Linda Langevin.  She beseeched the parents to have faith in the decision-making ability of school administrators.

“You’ve trusted us before with your kids, and we haven’t caused them any harm…I just analyzed the data on the literacy test; the information is embargoed but I wish I could show it to you, because the kids did fantastically,” said Langevin.  She said the creation of another section for the fifth grade would be “overkill.”

Other business

In other business, the school board:

— Passed a resolution to reduce the length of term of office for members of the board taking office on or after July 1 from five years to four years.  Gary Hubert and Kevin Kroencke opposed the measure, while Gibson, C. James Coffin, Thomas McKenna, Paige Pierce, and Timothy Blow supported it.  Voters will have to pass the measure on May 20 for it to take effect [See “archives” for Feb. 21 at www.altamontenterprise.com.];

— Unanimously passed a resolution to submit to  voters a proposition on May 20 to transfer $95,000 from the general fund into the school-lunch fund to pay  the debt the school lunch program has accrued over the last five years [See “archives” at www.altamontenterprise.com for March 13, 2008];

— Unanimously accepted a computer and two printers donated by middle-school teacher Sheila Lobel;

— Unanimously appointed Heather Higgins as the replacement for Mrs. Kelly Lendrum, the long-term substitute teacher for the first grade; and

— Set the next regular meeting of the Voorheesville board of will be on Monday, April 7 at 7:30 in the school cafeteria.  There will also be a special meeting for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services budget vote on Monday, April 21, at 7:30 a.m. in the district office.

Going Out for enlightening drama
Secret Garden blooms on Voorheesville stage

By Zach Simeone

VOORHEESVILLE — It’s nearing 5 p.m. The performing arts center at the Voorheesville high school is filled with the low hum of the Dionysians’ sweeping vocal warm-ups. These students have a story to tell.

Starting on March 28, players at Clayton A. Bouton High School will be performing The Secret Garden, an award-winning musical adapted from the 1909 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

“It’s remarkable how many talented kids are on the cast,” said Molly Spooner, director of the show. She teaches music at the high school. “They’ve come so far in such a short amount of time.” The characters and music are very complicated, she said.

“To me, this show is about how one singular event, person, or place can transform life for so many,” said the director. Such events have lulled many of the characters into what she calls an “emotional hibernation,

because they don’t know how to lean on one another for warmth and love.”

Young Mary Lennox, born in India to wealthy parents, has been orphaned and sent to Misselthwaite Manor, an isolated country house in Yorkshire, England. There, she finds Archibald Craven, her uncle, a widower still grieving the death of his wife a decade before. And she discovers Colin, her uncle’s son, who has been shut away as an invalid.

The play, Spooner said, deals with other themes as well, like children being able to teach adults, and people of lower class having insight to offer. “The adult characters are so emotionally crippled, and it’s the kids who teach them how to move on,” she said. “Another thing you’ll notice is that it’s the servants in the show who are really more grounded.”

Mary learns of a walled secret garden from her chambermaid, Martha, which the children revive, helped by Martha’s brother, Dickon, and the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff.

The Secret Garden is the second show that Spooner has directed at Voorheesville, the first being Grease. “I feel like there have been few shows here that have been this dark,” she said. “Also, with Grease, there wasn’t a lot of learning involved.”

“We’ve never done a show like this,” said Garrett Wineinger, a student at the high school and performer in the show. “There are just so many things happening in this play.” Wineinger plays Dickon, who befriends Mary and helps her blossom as they work together in the garden.

“It’s an emotional, dark story, but it has its humor,” said Meara McTague, who plays Mary Lennox.

The director has been continually impressed by the ability of her lead actors to overcome the challenges associated with some of the characters. Chloe Siegel, a seventh-grader, is one of three middle-school students on the cast. She plays Colin Craven, the 10-year-old boy who starts as a cripple and ends up walking. “It’s…different,” she said, giggling at the thought of playing a male character.

“One challenge was getting Chris Hammer, an 18-year-old kid in perfect health, to play Archibald Craven,” said Spooner. “The character is a hunchback, and in very poor health.” Craven spends most of his time mourning his deceased wife, Lily, who is present throughout much of the play as a ghost. In the end, seeing his son walk, Craven is at last happy.

Spooner performed in The Secret Garden during her senior year at Bethlehem High School, and couldn’t be more excited to be directing the show, she said. “I think it’s going to turn out great,” she said. “The kids are just wonderful.”


The Secret Garden will play at the performing arts center of Clayton A. Bouton High School on Route 85A in Voorheesville on Friday, March 28, at 7:15 p.m.; Saturday, March 29 at 7:15 p.m.; and Sunday, March 30, at 2:15 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, with a $2 discount for students and seniors.

Voorheesville student to attend Tech Valley High — alone

By David S. Lewis

VOORHEESVILLE—Colleen Bates will be the only student representing Voorheesville next year at Tech Valley High, the experimental tech-based regional high school that started this year.  The school board here held a straw vote at its budget meeting Monday night and determined that, while keeping one student enrolled at the school was important, a tightened budget didn’t allow for sending another.

Ilyssa Hoffman-Simken was selected to begin Tech Valley next year, but it seems likely that the offer will be rescinded after the board makes its formal vote on the budget in April.  Ilyssa and her mother, Shari Hoffman-Simken, were both at the meeting, but Ilyssa had to leave early in order to study.  Mrs. Hoffman-Simken asked the board to reconsider and said she was extremely disappointed in the board’s reluctance to send her daughter to Tech Valley.

The school was developed by local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services to serve as a model for modern learning, from which participating schools could glean best practices. The annual tuition for each student is $18,000, but the home district is reimbursed for a portion of that through BOCES aid.

“I think this is a way of teaching our children for the 21st Century,” Mrs. Hoffman-Simken said. “I think this is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass on.” She assured the board that the investment would pay the district back “one hundredfold.”

Board member Timothy Blow said that he didn’t think the Tech Valley program was a sound investment for the district, suggesting that the money would be better put to use for the students enrolled in Voorheesville schools.

“These are things we can learn to do easily ourselves. We could send 10 students to New Visions,” Blow said, referring to another BOCES program, “for the cost of sending one student to Tech Valley.”

Board member Kevin Kroencke agreed.  “In a perfect world, with unlimited resources, I would support this,” he said, continuing, “That $18,000 could be put to other uses that would benefit the kids immediately and the district greatly.”  Kroencke, who no longer has children enrolled in the district, reminded the board that two-thirds of the homes in the district don’t have any children enrolled in the schools, and warned that, in order to ensure further support from the community, the board needs to be mindful of the rest of the community.  He went on to suggest the experimental school was a matter of politics as well an endeavor of education.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, here; resources are being thrown at this school for reasons that are political,” and made references to the school’s “Godfather” in the state legislature.

Another opponent to the second student was board member Thomas McKenna, but he was careful to recognize the importance of supporting the student already attending the school.

“We shouldn’t yank the rug out from under the student we already have there,” he said, “but as a fiscal conservative, I couldn’t support sending another.”

Board President David Gibson reminded everyone that Tech Valley High has only been operational for six months, saying that there is no way yet to use the data it has collected.

“I think the difference between no student attending and one student attending would be a sacrifice I wouldn’t want to make,” said Gibson.

Tech Valley High School, with a total of 40 students from the Capital Area enrolled, uses hands-on teaching methods and project-based learning to prepare students for the rigorous technology-sector demands in the 21st Century.  Supported by local BOCES as well as such private companies as the Gates Foundation, IBM, and General Electric, the school uses advanced software systems and what it calls “real-world assessment” projects as well as combining different disciplines and emphasizing critical thinking.

Pros and cons

 Brian Stumbaugh, the data coordinator for Voorheesville’s middle and high schools, gave a presentation on the pros and cons of sending students through the program, as well as estimating the investment potential for the district.

Pros include the practical value of having an inside story on the unconventional teaching structures for the district, as well as the practical knowledge students would gain from the experience.  The drawback to the program is the cost to the district.

Gibson argued that the actual cost would subtract $6,000, the cost of educating the student if she remained in the district, and the home school also benefits by having a smaller class.

Although Gibson was a strong supporter of the program, he seemed to have difficulty convincing enough of the other members of its value. He took informal votes, which were split, that indicated board members would support continuing Bates’s schooling at Tech Valley High, but not support sending another student. The original plan was for each participating to school to send one student each year.

Several board members including Kroencke, Blow, and Vice President  C. James Coffin, expressed serious doubts as to whether even the first student’s enrollment was a sound investment at a time when the budget was tight.

Those attending Monday’s meeting also had divided sentiments. Several strong proponents hailed the values of enhancing Voorheesville’s curriculum and learning paradigms as well as expressing fears that the district could be “left behind’ if it didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. But other residents said that it seemed to be a waste of money that could be better spent on students actually going to school in the district.  Opponents of the Tech Valley program said that it didn’t make any difference to them whether BOCES came through or not; they felt it was a waste of resources.

Disappointed students

Bates is preparing for her sophomore year at Tech Valley High; she was disappointed to learn that she will probably be the only student attending the school from Voorheesville.  She told The Enterprise that the small class size and the amount of personal attention the students received from teachers made a significant difference in students’ performance.

“The teachers know if you are having a hard time and they really try to help you,” she said.

 Bates became friends with Ilyssa Hoffman-Simken at a recent meeting and said she was sad that she wouldn’t be getting the opportunity to go to the school.  She said the program has not only taught her useful skills, but also improved her ability to communicate.

“I had really hoped they would send someone else,” said Bates. “The program is really beneficial and I don’t know why they can’t see that.”

Shari Hoffman-Simken said yesterday that the program is a great opportunity not just for students, but also for teachers.  An educator for over 25 years, Hoffman-Simken has a master’s degree in education and works as a consultant for elementary drama programs that seek to integrate drama into school curricula.  She said that curricula based on standardized testing don’t foster a “thinking atmosphere” and said that it causes teachers to burn out. 

She called the board’s decision “illogical.”

“You can’t base your decision to participate in a program on a single child’s performance; it puts a lot of pressure on Colleen and it isn’t fair,” said Mrs. Hoffman-Simken. “This program has only been around for six months…We’ve had eight years to determine whether No Child Left Behind works,” she said, referring to federal legislation that mandates testing. “And guess what?” she concluded. “It doesn’t.”

Hoffman-Simken said that she would be speaking in favor of the program even if it weren’t her child who had been selected.

“If Ilyssa continues in Voorheesville schools, she will get a great education.  We are very fortunate this way,” she said.

Ilyssa’s application had been approved by Tech Valley High School, but school principal Mark Diefendorf told her and her parents that enrollment approval was pending a final decision by the board.  That decision will be made on April 7 at the next regular meeting.

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