October 22, 2021

Holding out for school options

Cortland residents seek answers after vote to create grade centers

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Nathanael Mathy, 10, of Virgil, uses the Virgil Elementary School playground after school hours Tuesday.

Following Tuesday’s vote to convert Barry, Smith and Randall elementary schools into grade centers, many Cortland School District residents are seeking concrete solutions to unanswered questions.

They wonder if Virgil and Parker schools can be saved in some way, be it through a nearby district taking over or through the creation of a charter school.

They wonder if the whole district’s decision can be delayed or overturned. And if not, they wonder what will become of the facilities.

Virgil annexation?

Arielle Brown of Virgil expects her daughter, who will be in the third grade and at Smith Elementary by the fall of 2019, will spend more than an hour on a bus each day to and from school, a commute she says will dampen the spirits of even the most avid pupil.

“It is my worst nightmare, having my children not excited for school,” she said.

Brown said she would prefer sending her students to Dryden, which is closer to her home than Smith school in Cortland, even if it means paying tuition. Ideally, she would like the Cortland district to be open to letting the Dryden district annex all or part of Virgil, though she admits this is not likely.

Susan Byrnes also floated the idea, but it has not gone far beyond a letter she sent to the Dryden School District.

Dryden Superintendent William Locke and school board President Margie Malepe said earlier this week that such an idea needs to be discussed at length before they comment on it.

Why convert schools to grade centers?

Cortland City School District Superintendent Michael Hoose said the grade center configuration that the Board of Education voted on June 19 — a kindergarten to 2nd grade school, a third- and fourth-grade and a fifth and sixth-grade school — is the best option because:

• It will allow teachers to collaborate at the grade level and also allow special education teachers to focus on one particular age group.
• It keeps students with their peers all through elementary school, rather than introducing them in the seventh grade, when educators say it is a difficult time for some to make that adjustment.
• It is the option that ensures the least disparity between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Annexing Virgil school would require approval by both school boards.

If the Dryden district were to annex Virgil, it would also take the property tax revenue generated by those properties from the Cortland district.

If it was to happen, it would be the second time Virgil is annexed. The Virgil school opened as Virgil Central School in 1931, after a May 5, 1930, vote by people in nine Virgil schools to consolidate.

In 1960, Virgil residents and the district resisted a push by the state Department of Education to merge with Dryden.

But in 1965, Cortland City School District annexed the Virgil district, creating the Cortland Enlarged School District.

What becomes of Virgil playground?

The two aspects of the school Brown wants to see maintained for community use are the playground and the walking trail, part of which is owned by the town.

Hoose said the district has no intention of dismantling the playground at Virgil, a rumor that floated through the district. He said any future owner of the building would acquire the property, along with the liability associated with the playground. Until then, it’s the school’s property and liability.

The town of Virgil and the district are discussing possibilities for the school building, said Deputy Town Supervisor Jereme Stiles, though he said the town has to weigh what it can afford.

“We don’t want it to turn into an eyesore in the center of town but also we’ve got to look into the financial aspects of it, too,” he said.

A charter at Parker?

Cortland resident Donald Chu plans to file a letter of intent to create a charter school at Parker by the state’s July 9 deadline. Chu said the idea is a “Hail Mary shot,” unlikely to succeed, but something he wants to try.

“We don’t have too many other options,” he said.

He is trying to gauge interest and assemble a board that would form the charter school. Chu wants to see Parker kept open as a public school.

Creating a charter school isn’t simple, as the backers of a proposed charter school in Truxton know.

The Truxton Academy Charter School board has been trying for approval to put a charter school in the former Hartnett Elementary School since 2015.

The state Board of Regents rejected its application last year. Now it is trying for certification through the SUNY Charter School Institute, which approves only 35 percent of applications.

Chu says he just wants to see the integrity of Parker maintained.

“It was built with public money and it represents the best of Cortland at a time when Cortland was fairly prosperous,” he said.

The future of petitions Brown and Chu are circulating petitions calling upon the school district to delay action on closing schools until more time is spent seeking alternatives. They hope if they get enough signatures, ideally more than 1,000, they can override the vote. So far they have about 100.

But it doesn’t work that way, said Jay Worona, chief legal counsel for the New York State School Boards Association.

“There is a provision in the Education Law which permits school boards to seek input from their community on school closures, but boards are not required to do so,” Worona said Thursday. “There is no provision in the law which would permit the public to direct the board of education as to which direction to go related to decisions affecting grade reconfiguration.”

Brown and Chu also plan to land the petition on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk with the goal of Cuomo himself stepping in to reverse this decision.

But the governor doesn’t have that authority, Worona said. “There is no authority in the law to get to petition the governor to rescind a school closing vote on the part of the board.”

The public could of course vote out the school board members who backed the proposal, he said, but that is their only recourse.

“There is no process the law envisions that would yield that type of appeal process to go to the governor,” he said.

Chu is not deterred.

“Even documenting the public sentiment is a value,” he said. “If we can get a large enough number it will show that most people are opposed to the closings.”