October 23, 2021

Closings hit home

Plan to shut city schools upsets families

Cortland Standard file photo

A school bus pulls away from Parker Elementary School in Cortland. File photo from June 2018.

Matt Lowie was dropping his two daughters off at Parker Elementary School on Wednesday morning, the day after a vote by the Board of Education to close both Parker and Virgil schools. As he watched his girls walk inside from the parking lot across from the school, he said he felt saddened.

Brynn, in kindergarten, and Ella, in first grade, said Lowie, took the news hard.

“They started crying last night,” he said.

The school board voted 5-1 (Alane VanDonsel was opposed) to close Parker and Virgil by July 2019 to save about $1.4 million yearly in staffing costs and about $6.3 million in renovations.

When Lowie dropped the girls off Wednesday morning, they wondered why their teachers were all standing outside.

When he explained it was probably to show support for the students in light of the news the school will close next year, he said, his daughters were in denial.

“Ella, my first-grader, said it’s absolutely not going to close,” he said.

The district is deciding whether to reconfigure the remaining schools into three grade center groupings: A kindergarten to second-grade building, a third- and fourth-grade building and a fifth- and sixth-grade building, or two K-4 buildings and one 5-6 building, an option that would require drawing up new attendance zones.

The district expects to decide June 19.

Tiffany Howard dropped her kindergartner, Isabella, off at Parker, and pushed her 3-year-old Charles in a stroller. She worried about a configuration that could have her running around town in the morning to various schools, dropping Isabella off at one and her youngest off at another.

“My biggest concern is how it will be split up. He will start school soon,” she said, gesturing to Charles. “Keeping my family together would be best, but we have to wait and see.”

Kirk Truitt, parent of a Parker Elementary School kindergartner, talks Wednesday morning about his and his daughter’s experiences at the Cortland elementary school, which is expected to close at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

Parker, built in 1928, and Virgil in 1932, have been cornerstones of their neighborhoods for decades.

But amid declining enrollment and financial troubles, the board decided Tuesday it was in the district’s best interests to close them permanently.

They serve the smallest number of students — 248 at Parker and 124 at Virgil — and repairs needed to the buildings total $5.1 million at Parker and $1.2 million at Virgil, according to a consultant the district hired last year to study the facilities.

At Virgil Elementary School on Wednesday, there were no special announcements made about the closing, said Superintendent Mike Hoose.

In Virgil, Oksana Shevchuk walked along Church Street on Wednesday afternoon with her 3-year-old son Luke, to pick up her kindergarten-aged daughter, Lillyana.

Shevchuk had not yet broken the news to Lillyana. She was trying to figure out the best way to tell her.

The closure means a big move for the family — to Tennessee. The Shevchuks had been thinking about it for some time, but the announced closure made up her mind.

“We were looking to buy a house and we bought a house in Virgil because of the school and now that the school is closing, we need a new place,” she said.

Crossing guard Gail Spencer helps students cross Madison Street as they arrive at Parker School Wednesday.

District officials said the move is necessary to stop a crippling dependence on reserves, but the savings don’t mean much to parents like Kirk Truitt, who was dropping off his kindergarten daughter Ayanna at Parker Elementary on Wednesday morning.

Truitt said the staff at Parker Elementary go above and beyond the call of duty to make students feel special. It’s a commitment that can’t be quantified.

He mentioned a class celebration for Ayanna’s birthday, a moment that was special for her. And his family loves how the school does “shout-outs,” loudspeaker announcements recognizing students.

Ayanna has been recognized in this way, he said, and it makes a difference, he said.

“I love it, and it’s not just for her, it’s great for all the kids who progress,” he said. “I like this school and I’m sad to see it’s going to close.”