November 30, 2021

Goodbye K-6, hello to grade centers

Cortland Standard file photo

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

CORTLAND — Arielle Brown seethed Tuesday night after the Cortland school board voted to create grade centers out of the district’s three remaining elementary schools following next July’s closure of Parker and Virgil elementary schools.

It’s a complete waste of money, said Brown, a Virgil mother of two, a first-grader and fourth-grader, who she expects will spend more than an hour a day on the bus once the restructuring is complete.

“We live the other side of Virgil, closer to Dryden, I am outraged,” Brown said, preferring Randall school to close. Young children will lose the presence of older, mentoring children.

School board members Christine Gregory and Alane VanDonsel opposed the configuration in the 4-2 vote to configure:

• Barry school for kindergarten to second grade.
• Smith school for third- and fourth-graders.
• Randall school for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Board member David Lemon was absent.

Creating grade centers would reap the greatest educational benefits, said Superintendent Michael Hoose, with teachers able to collaborate, and as the plan that saves the district the most money.

The district projects that by 2023, with grade center configurations, rather than taking $5 million from reserves each year to balance the budget, the district will have about an extra $2 million.

Others didn’t buy it.

Brown and city resident Christina Darling said before the vote that petitions that have circulated opposing the plan and urged the board not to proceed without first getting public comment on the various options, which included creating two K-4 schools and one 5-6 school.

Brown and other residents noted that educators recommended creating a middle school in a presentation earlier in the meeting.

Virgil resident Bob Applegate suspected the creation of a middle school is a foregone conclusion, and he questioned if the district needs money so badly that it is closing two elementary schools, how it can justify spending money to create a middle school.

Brown questioned the rationale behind closing Virgil, the school farthest away from the urban core and saving the least money. At $1.2 million in repairs over the next five years, Virgil faces about $1 million less in repairs than Randall, the school with the second-cheapest repair cost. Virgil, however, is the district’s smallest school.

The district projected saving about $600,000 in staff costs by closing Virgil and about $800,000 in staff costs by closing Parker, though it did not delineate staff costs from other buildings. The resolution on grade configuration stated that creating grade centers can balance the budget “without many, if any” layoffs.

Brown and Applegate lament the loss of Virgil. Applegate said if it’s a caring atmosphere they want in a school, Virgil had it.

Brown plans to get more signatures on a petition, which she hopes lands on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk, calling on the district to reverse its vote.

Applegate said the district’s year-long facilities study concluded that the proposed restructuring had no educational advantage.

“In the study, they said many times that there is no evidence that restructuring of this sort provides any academic advantage, so if they are relying on that study, it doesn’t follow,” he said.

His wife, Christine Applegate, said she wanted a public hearing on the reconfiguration.

“I don’t know the research they did, the outcomes showed in other districts that led them to believe this is a good policy,” Christine Applegate said. “And other schools have spent a lot more than one year on the project. I feel it is very ill considered.”

But board member Peter Rogoff defended the board’s decision.

“It is the option that gave us the best financial advantage to balance the budget and the best advantage from a socioeconomic perspective,” said Rogoff, who like other parents has three kids who will attend three different schools. “It is the best option long-term for the district.”