Mayor's notes: Consultant’s report is the elephant in the room

Photo by Ron Ginsburg

Proud moment: At Tuesday’s concert in the park, sponsored by the Altamont Free Library, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, center, presents a plaque to Tony Kossmann, left, past president of the Altamont Free Library Association, denoting the library’s being one of seven projects chosen by the Preservation League of New York State for its Excellence in Historic Preservation Award, recognizing its transformation of the 1897 Altamont train station into a library — a $1.2 million project with roughly $220,000 from donations, $180,000 from fundraising, and $630,000 from grants. Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, right, a supporter of the project, displays the message on his red T-shirt — one of many being sold to support keeping Altamont Elementary School open as the Guilderland School District considers ways to efficiently run its schools in the wake of declining enrollment.

Last week, the Guilderland School District added future meetings to discuss a consultant’s report released last month that provided options to save the district money.  Five of the six options proposed closing elementary schools, and four of the five proposed closing Altamont Elementary School.

In last week’s Enterprise, the Superintendent of Schools Marie Wiles expressed concern that the community needs to be more involved and that discussions should not focus just on closing schools.

“The scenarios have become the problem,” she said, with people galvanizing to keep a school from closing rather than looking for solutions.  She also expressed concern that the district has received only two written responses to the study and more than half the applicants for the now rescheduled November focus group discussion are from Altamont.

I agree there is a need to clarify or expand understanding on the topic, but the problem here is not lack of interest from parents from all attendance zones in the district other than Altamont.  The problem is the report’s recommendations, as the superintendent points out.

It’s the elephant in the room whose presence needs to be acknowledged as a distraction to a larger issue.  Pretending the elephant is not there is avoiding the bigger issue of finding more effective use of district resources.

We would have a better environment for collaborative problem solving if the report’s options were removed from the discussion by the board, especially since the recommendations for discussion target only one school for closure.

Frankly, there would be a more healthy conversation district-wide if closing Altamont’s school were removed from the discussion now.

In my opinion, the apparent lack of interest exhibited by other than Altamont Elementary School parents is that the rest of the district’s parents and teachers have no skin in the game.  Let’s face it: essentially 80 percent of the report’s options, recommendations, or scenarios are about closing Altamont Elementary School.

Board members suggested it was difficult to recruit participants in a planned focus session in September because of summer vacations, so they postponed the deadline for the focus group sessions until November, three months from now.  Summer schedules may be part of the reason for non-interest, but why would others in the district notice or care when the report’s options are essentially not about them? 

The report does address the enrollment decline in the entire district, but the solutions presented focus almost entirely on the Altamont school.   The report does not address ramifications to the students in the other elementary schools, the high school, or the middle school in the suggested solutions.

The middle school is under-utilized by about 25 percent; and the high school is under-utilized by about 25 percent.  By the time the district’s kindergarteners reach these upper-level schools, these schools will be even more underused.  The high school and middle school are the most underutilized currently, but are not proposed as being part of the report’s solutions.  

Superintendent Wiles reported in The Enterprise that, “when Seversky talked with the district about doing the study a year ago, he said he wouldn’t take the job if it had a plan in mind.”  I wonder if the consultant had a plan in mind.

I am afraid that all the assurances promising that the “conversation” is just beginning are being viewed as hollow or with suspicion by Altamont parents because the report’s options to close schools are sitting right in the middle of the room.

What further puzzles me is the district’s concern reported in last week’s Enterprise that only two people to date have responded to the district about the report when there has been much more discussion and opinion about the report for the last month than they acknowledge.  The Enterprise outlined within last week’s coverage on the topic that it has already printed a “score” of letters and opinions on the topic since the presentation by the district on June 16. In addition, a half-dozen residents spoke at the July 1 board meeting about the report and its recommendations.

The Altamont Elementary School community has assembled a research database that is available to everyone, including the school district, on SavingGuilderlandSchools.org.  In addition to the suggestions reiterated in last week’s Enterprise, others that have surfaced include concerns about apparent inaccuracies in the report, the report’s limited options, suggestions for analyzing transportation data, and suggesting other programmatic reorganizations that are not addressed within the report. Why are these many responses not valid and included other than the two referred to by the superintendent? 

The Altamont Enterprise noted that the district now has an email address exclusively for comments and questions on the capacity study so that board members and administrators are sure to see responses.  Does the feedback given already by many concerned citizens only count if it is re-sent to the district on the special email address or made by a non-Altamont resident? 

Superintendent Wiles also reported in last week’s Enterprise, “Our income is essentially fixed.”

I am acutely aware that all municipalities, including school districts, have to abide by a state-set tax-levy cap, as the article pointed out.  However, even without an increase in its tax levy, because the value of property in the town of Guilderland has increased by $41 million, the district will receive in September, after various exemptions, over $400,000 in increased tax revenue.

I hope that such new revenues are recognized and put to good use for the coming school year, and not lost in the distractions about the report’s recommendations.

I agree that it will be good if more voices respond to the data within the study, which focuses on capacity and enrollment.   Unfortunately, the report went beyond just presenting data and recommended to close a school, which we can all agree has consumed discussion thus far.

If  “we truly do not have a solution,” as Superintendent Wiles says, then take the closing-schools options off the table and out of the room so we can really re-set the conversation, engage the community, hear viewpoints, and make informed recommendations that are not distracted by the looming presence of the report’s recommendations.