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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 6, 2011
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
BETHLEHEM Elementary classes in several Bethlehem schools are filled to their limit, meaning incoming students may be placed in schools outside of the area where they live.
“We have a policy it’s posted on our website that children registering in a school after June 1, we take a chance on whether we can put them in the school where they reside,” said Superintendent Michael Tebbano. “It’s not that we’re trying to be mean. We have to keep our class sizes balanced.”
New families continue to move into the district; a few more students arrived this week, he said. Bethlehem, which has five elementary schools, has about 1,950 students in kindergarten through fifth grade; 19 are currently placed in schools outside their zones, Tebbano said.
Unlike some other local school districts that budget for extra teaching positions if needed due to the summer influx of students, Bethlehem does not. The procedure was stopped, Tebbano said, because of “the financial crisis.”
“After June 1, our budget is set,” he said. “We don’t add sections above and beyond what the community agreed to pay for.”
To add another section, he said, he would have to ask the school board. “We’re really trying to keep our tax levy to 2 percent here,” he said. “We made a commitment to the community.”
Last year, facing a budget gap, the Bethlehem School Board, in a split vote, decided to close the Clarksville Elementary School; those students are now attending either the Eagle or Slingerlands schools. The rural Clarksville school was the district’s only one in New Scotland; the other elementary schools are in suburban Bethlehem. Many Clarksville residents fought the closure.
Wendy Detwiler, whose son had attended the Clarksville school, wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, expressing her outrage that her son, Hunter, now goes to Eagle while her foster son, Josh, is at Glenmont.
Her foster son arrived in August, she wrote, stating, “He has already been through some huge dramatic changes in his life and now he has to take a bus on his own and go to school by himself.”
Tebbano said that the foster child hadn’t been registered until Sept. 6 and that there was no room for another second-grader at Eagle Elementary. “We did have room at Glenmont,” he said. “I regret that it’s caused a lot of frustration.”
He went on, “Parents appreciate that we’re trying to control our class sizes.” Tebbano said that, because of the “economic crisis,” class sizes at Bethlehem schools have been increased. Kindergarten classes have between 22 and 24 students, “which is large,” he said. First-grade classes have 23 or 24; second grade, 24 or 25; third grade, 25 or 26; fourth grade, 26 or 27; and fifth grade, 27 or 28.
In distributing students, Tebbano said, “We try to err on the side of the smaller number. The board of education realizes we have to be flexible and the teachers’ association recognizes it, too.”
Once a student is placed in a school out of his zone, he is allowed to stay there if he wants, Tebbano said, even if space opens up in his home school.
“Something parents don’t understand, as a superintendent, I have the legal authority to place a child anywhere,” said Tebbano, adding that he tries not to place children outside of their zoned school.
While Detwiler has no complaints about the treatment her foster son has received at Glenmont Elementary “He has a sympathetic teacher and an understanding principal,” she said she doesn’t buy the district’s argument that the placement is for economic reasons.
Detwiler has been through “several weeks of [his] reluctantly getting on the bus.” She went on, “We have a long driveway, so I wait with them. They send a bus just for Josh. There was no other student on it. They said they did this to save money. Having one bus for one student how can this be saving money?”
“It’s been a tough start to the school year for all my kids,” said Detwiler who has three of her own sons as well as a foster son. Her two older boys are at the Bethlehem middle school.
“Hunter has had to adjust from a very small setting to a large one,” she said. He’s had to get used to a long bus ride and a much larger school as well as a larger class, she said.
“They’ve packed Eagle’s classes to the limit,” Detwiler said. “He has 26 in his class this year; he had 16 last year at Clarksville.”
Detwiler believes it is “overwhelming” not just for the students to be in such large classes but for the teachers as well. It has taken her awhile to be able to communicate with Hunter’s teacher over his medical issues, Detwiler said, because the teacher has so much to deal with.
“I’d be interested to know how the teachers feel with so many kids in their class,” she said.
Referring to the school board meetings that were packed with Clarksville protesters, Detwiler said, “Last spring, they kept saying, there’s plenty of space; everyone will be in the school they’re supposed to be in.”
“We feel lied to, cheated out of our original elementary school, and now locked out of our new school,” Detwiler wrote in her letter.
Tebbano acknowledged that there was “a lot of angst and anxiety” about the Clarksville school closing. “I respect that people are upset about it,” he said.
He went on,“I’ve been in Eagle and Slingerlands. The classes have melded very nicely together. I hope Clarksville opens again…I love Clarksville. I didn’t want it to close.”
The school board’s March vote went against Tebbano’s recommendation.
Tebbano stressed this week that the placing of Detwiler’s foster son has “nothing to do with Clarksville closing.” He went on, “If we kept Clarksville open and they were capped, he still would have been placed in another school.”
Tebbano said, “We have to be fair to the kids that are here. If he had been here before June 1, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Detwiler said that, when she was told three other families were ahead of her on the waiting list for second-graders at Eagle Elementary School, she was concerned the problem was widespread. “It’s surprising they couldn’t make it work some other way,” she said.
Tebbano concluded, “I apologize to the family if they felt singled out but I was acting in the interest of all the children of the district.”
Detwiler stressed, “It’s not good to shuffle students around.”