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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 24, 2011

With art by Forest Byrd

Don’t snatch Clarksville students from their nest

A school is more than bricks and mortar. It has a history and a spirit, shaped by the community that builds it, by the staff and faculty that work in it, and by the students who spend most of their waking hours under its roof.

The Bethlehem School Board is slated to decide on March 30 whether it will close the Clarksville Elementary School. The smallest of the suburban district’s six elementary schools, Clarksville is the only one in the town of New Scotland and the only one serving a rural community.

We understand that Bethlehem, like school districts across New York, is suffering from the recession that has stagnated property values and cut state aid. Attempting to close a $1 million budget gap by closing the Clarksville school may seem like an enticing quick fix. But it’s not.

Clarksville is the essence of a neighborhood school, a system on which the district was built. Hundreds of people from the Clarksville school community have attended recent forums to let the board know of their strong feelings for the school. And, for weeks now, we’ve printed well-thought-out and carefully researched letters, making the case for keeping Clarksville open.

At the very least, the board should follow the procedure outlined by the State Education Law, which recommends that, at least six months in advance of a proposed school closing, the board establish an advisory committee on school building use “to investigate the educational impact of such a closing.” The committee — which is recommended by the law but not required — is to provide a written educational impact statement.

The statement is to include current and projected enrollment, ramifications of a closing upon the community; initial costs and savings; possible use of the building; effect on staff needs and on the costs of instruction, administration, transportation; age and condition of the building and outstanding indebtedness; and the ability of other schools in the district to accommodate pupils.

Such a committee would be essential to thoroughly investigate everything outlined in the law.

The feasibility study put together by superintendent Michael Tebbano focused on only one school — Clarksville —rather than looking at all six schools. Among the options being considered by the board is spending $40,000 to hire a consultant to redistrict; the money would be better spent on a feasibility study on closing an elementary school.

Tebbano has said the district would save nearly $900,000 by closing the school, which would include the $3,700 cost of upkeep while the building is “mothballed” although some have even questioned that figure, noting that, with no basement, mold could become a problem if heat weren’t kept at a certain level in the closed school and if proper ventilation weren’t provided.

 But the lion’s share of that “savings” is for staff. The 200 or so Clarksville students who would be sent to either the Eagle or Slingerlands schools would still require teachers.

Closing the Clarksville school would save an estimated $84,000 in energy and maintenance — the rest of the “savings” is for personnel. While the district would save by not having to pay a sixth elementary principal or school nurse, the other costs for staff would still largely hold.

We don’t want to see Bethlehem repeat a mistake it made less than a decade ago. While no one has a crystal ball, the $93 million bond vote in 2003 that built Eagle elementary and expanded Clarksville appears now to have been poorly planned.

Now, if the Clarksville school is closed, taxpayers will still be paying the bond on its $2.9 million expansion and upgrade as the school sits empty.

Part of the history and spirit of Clarksville Elementary was embodied in its principal, Dorothy McDonald, who died last year. She was a homegrown teacher who loved small-town life, which she said was one of the things that attracted her to the Clarksville school.

She was a pupil in New Salem’s old-fashioned two-room schoolhouse and fondly recalled the teacher there, the late Phoebe Sisson. “Mrs. Sisson was the most warm, nurturing teacher,” McDonald said. She never forgot how kind and caring her elementary teacher was, she said. McDonald went on to graduate from Clayton A. Bouton High School in Voorheesville.

A decade ago, faced with the prospect of closing Clarksville, McDonald fought hard to help others see its worth.

“While Dorothy was appreciative of the financial situation,” Tebbano said of McDonald in 2010, “she was the rallying force for keeping the school open. She believed Clarksville education was strong and worth keeping. She gave her darnedest for keeping a very special school.”

What made the school special? The feeling of community.

McDonald would greet students as they disembarked from their buses each day. “She knew every student in the school,” Tebbano said. “She knew something special about every one…Her smile and encouragement made children comfortable in school…She knew their families and she valued and cherished each student.”

McDonald also worked hard with the faculty on boosting student achievement and was successful in raising test scores, he said. The latest School Report Card from the state shows that. Students at Clarksville scoring in the top three quadrants are well ahead of state averages and slightly ahead of Bethlehem averages in all testing areas — third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade English and math, and fourth-grade science.

Just as important, under McDonald’s tutelage, Tebbano said at the time of her death, “Kids learned to respect each other. Clarksville has a code of behavior that each child lives with.”

McDonald herself said of elementary-age children, “It’s a tremendously formative time in the life of a child. They’re forming a value system, carrying ideas about the world, and learning about basic things like right and wrong, and issues of character…Elementary educators are able to be part of the influencing process. We help them develop fine, strong characters, to see themselves as competent, caring people, and to develop learning strategies they’ll use their whole lives.”

So, measurable learning — 96 percent or higher in the top three quadrants in all state-tested subjects — is going well at Clarksville. And, we believe, those all-important immeasurable qualities are also being taught. This happens not just because of the staff but also because of the support of the community. Why hastily dismantle a successful school for limited savings?

The bricks and mortar will remain but the soul of the school will have vanished.

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