CORTLAND — Eileen Fitzgerald doesn’t know how to tell her Virgil Elementary School fourth-graders the news today: The school, and Parker Elementary will close forever in July 2019.
The 29-year teacher asked the Cortland Board of Education on Tuesday following a 5-1 vote to close the schools what she should say.
“I have to face my fourth-graders who are going to ask where they are going and I don’t have an answer,” she told the board just before the close of the meeting. Board members said they delayed a vote on restructuring the remaining schools to give members more time to hear from all staff and faculty about which reconfiguration is best.
Fitzgerald expects her fourth-graders, who will be in sixth grade by the time they transfer to a new school, will adjust. After all, she said, they have expected the news for some time.
Fitzgerald may have a harder time. She was gathering herself after the meeting. She was tearful, but she wasn’t angry, just resigned.
“It’s tough. It wouldn’t have been my choice, but you know, I understand,” she said, her voice trailing off. Though Fitzgerald’s job is likely safe, with cuts through attrition, she’ll miss being part of the Virgil school community.
Not all of the 30 people in the audience were so understanding. Fitzgerald’s comment prompted much debate between the audience and the board, with audience members faulting the board for taking more time to decide on configuration, the board defending itself. The board has been considering options since September, beginning to focus on the closures in April.
Board President Janet Griffin said the board wants comment from staff and faculty about whether the remaining three elementary schools should be kindergarten to second grade, third and fourth grades and a fifth- and sixth-grade building, or two K-4 buildings and one 5-6 building. The second option will require drawing new attendance zone boundaries.
Board member Christine Gregory, who had often stated her opposition to reconfiguring the schools into grade centers, was absent.
Speakers said the board hasn’t done what the public wanted, so why continue to seek public input.
“It seems to me the lion’s share of the public and the school were against closing the schools,” Diane Chu said after the meeting. “And the school board, I don’t think, listened to the public.”
In casting her dissenting vote, Alane VanDonsel, who was elected years ago when Virgil residents rallied against an earlier attempt to close the school, said most residents opposed closing a school. She also said she thinks closing both schools will be detrimental to the district.
“I’m just concerned about larger classroom sizes and I’m concerned for families in the district, everything being turned upside down,” she said. “And I understand the financial aspect too, I just wish we could have been a little more creative.”
However, Superintendent Michael Hoose expects the opposite outcome.
Without having to deplete reserves each year, he said, the district can put money toward educational improvements, technological advancements and building repairs.
The district hopes to save about $2 million yearly with the closure of both schools and avoid the costly repairs needed for the aging buildings.
Closing Parker would save $800,000 a year in staff costs; closing Virgil would save $600,000. Parker needs $5.1 million in repairs over the next five years; Virgil needs $1.2 million.
Hoose and City Mayor Brian Tobin said after the meeting they will meet to decide the best use for Parker Elementary School, though Tobin’s role is advisory. The district will also have to decide the fate of Virgil Elementary School, in conjunction with Virgil Town Supervisor John Kaminski.
Tobin said he would consider factors like its effect on nearby property values and what uses best fit with the neighborhood.
“It behooves us as a city to help the school district bring the building forward into an appropriate use … that would increase the character of the neighborhood,” Tobin said.
Hoose expects the board to have enough information by its June 19 meeting to decide the configuration.
And in the meantime, Fitzgerald will break the news to her fourth graders that they won’t be finishing their elementary education at Virgil, but at either Randall, Smith or Barry elementary schools.