January 22, 2022

Waiting to see how it plays out

Trust, communication gap contribute to Virgil school vote failure

Kevin Conlon/city editor

A worker with the Cortland school district places yellow caution tape around the playground slide Wednesday at the former Virgil Elementary School. The slide will be removed to replace the slide at Barry Primary School.

A crew from the Cortland city school district arrived Wednesday at the former Virgil Elementary School to remove a playground slide the morning after district residents rejected a proposal to sell the school to a developer.

However, the two are not related, said district Superintendent Bob Edwards.

“Very importantly, the playground is not being dismantled,” Edwards said.

“We have a slide at Barry Primary School that needed to be replaced. Our BOCES safety officer reported this to us previously and we have sought an appropriate solution for repair.”

Three holes, 1 to 3 inches in diameter, were visible near the top of the Barry School slide on Wednesday morning.

“Initially we had planned to purchase a replacement,” Edwards said. “We can no longer source a replacement through the manufacturer, so our solution was to replace the slide with the slide on our property that was formerly the Virgil school building. Our repair of facilities for district students at Barry Primary is entirely unrelated to last night’s vote.”

On Tuesday, school district voters rejected a plan to sell the school, 228-269, to developer Evan Souzas, who owns The Community Restaurant on Main Street in Cortland and several buildings and apartments in the city. Souzas offered $360,000 for the building and its 4.6-acre lot said he planned to create 23 market-rate apartments.

Tallies for the two polling places made clear the source of the opposition was Virgil. At the Kaufman Center in the city of Cortland, the vote was 76-55 and absentee ballots were 110- 27. However, the vote at the Virgil polling place was 41-138.

The board of education plans to make the results of the referendum official at its Jan. 11 meeting.

“It’s the optics of it that look vindictive,” said town resident Sylvia Cook, an opponent of the plan to sell the school. “It seems like the people have spoken and spoken loudly that they want the town to buy it and use it for town purposes.”

The town board looked into the idea, but found restrictions on the property would make it difficult for the town to create a workable plan.

“There’s not a lot of trust and there’s not a lot of communication,” said Town Clerk Alane VanDonsel. She received phone calls Wednesday morning from people upset the playground slide was being removed.

VanDonsel was on the school board in 2019 when it decided to close the Virgil and Parker elementary schools because of declining enrollment and to save money. She cast the only vote in opposition.

She said residents distrust the district, reiterating complaints that when the school board approved absorbing the former Virgil school district into the city district in the 1960s, it promised residents they would never close the Virgil school.

Town officials have said that they were also told that the city school district had lost the deed to the Virgil school, which has been another reason for suspicion among Virgil residents.

Cibyl Delaire of Bleck Road was at the school playground with her 2-year-old son when a crew arrived to dismantle the slide.

“We had this vote last night to sell the school and I was feeling nostalgic about it,” Delaire said. “It seemed strange that the day after the vote, they are taking down the slide while we’re playing on it.”

VanDonsel said the town had tried to persuade the school district to sell or transfer the portion of the Virgil School site that includes a quarter-mile paved walking path and the playground, which was built at least in part with funds raised by the Virgil School Parent Teacher Organization.

The path crosses between the school property and the town hall site nearby.

The district is back to square one in deciding what to do with the former Virgil School. Several residents said trust in the school district is a big hurdle as it considers its options.

“It seems like they are not interested in what the community wants,” Delaire said. “They do what they want to do.”