Lewisboro Elementary School parents expressed worry about the potential for the building being closed next year, given the time frame that Katonah-Lewisboro school district officials are operating with.
The parents, who made their concerns known at a Tuesday public hearing at John Jay Middle School that lasted almost four hours, were concerned about the timeline, which calls for the School Closure Task Force to submit a report to the full school board by Dec. 19 and for the board to decide whether to close LES for the following school year by 2014-15.
“That to me sounds ridiculously quick," said Philip Spiegal. "Why not put the brakes on, push back January a few more months?”
Fellow parent Lalenya Siegel asked, “I think we want to know what the rush is, what the fire is? We don't understand the rush.”
Emily Wein, a co-president of the LES PTA who feels there is not enough time, noted that posted guidelines for dealing with transitions include joint PTA meetings, social events for children and touring facilitates. She added that these take time and money, and that a budget has already been made.
The parents gave their grievances at of turnout of at least several dozen people. Presiding over the public hearing were the three school board members who are on the task force - they are Janet Harckham, Marjorie Schiff and Richard Stone - and Superintendent Paul Kreutzer.
Officials repeatedly insisted that no decision to close LES has been made and that the public is getting new information when they are also receiving it.
“You know, if I had told you that when I ran for school board that I would be standing here before a bunch of my fellow parents discussing the idea of closing a school, I would have probably not run," Harckham said at the beginning. "It's not something that I take lightly or anyone else takes lightly. We love our schools and we love our community schools and so it is not with pride and happiness that I come to this conversation.”
Answering a question about why there is a December date in the timeline, Schiff explained that if there is no opportunity to file the report, which is called an educational impact study, then the board would not be able to consider a closure for 2014-15. She added that it is possible the board in December could decide not to close the school but may be interested in doing so in 2015-16. While the current board cannot bind a future board and make that decision a reality, the study could be filed with the successor board the following July. That new board, assuming no member departures in the middle of their terms, would still have at least five out of the current seven individuals.
Katonah-Lewisboro officials are considering a closure of LES due to a precipitous drop in enrollment in recent years. The district's peak overall enrollment, according to a presentation given, came in 2006 when it was 4,041 students. Next year, however, just 3,202 students are projected and by 2016-17 it is 2,965. Kreutzer also brought up the fact that the number of new kindergarten cohorts is smaller than the graduating classes that they replace in the district. In the case of the elementary schools, each have dropping enrollment forecasted, and with the exception of Katonah Elementary School, they are predicted to drop below 300 students by 2016-17.
parents questioned the reliability of the demography discussed,
raising points such as the potential impact of switching to full-day
kindergarten and a recovering economy with rising home sales.
Higher-than-expected enrollment in Ridgefield and in Chappaqua - the
later had more than 70 students above what was anticipated for this
year - were brought up as nearby examples.
Kreutzer, who is also an LES dad, defended the work of the district's demographer, who will be retained again for the process.
“They're very accurate," the superintendent said of the numbers, giving an example of this happening already.
Kreutzer also argued that even with a recovering housing market, such as taking the area's best sales year and using it for several more in a row, it would not be enough to avoid a downward trend.
“I cannot stress enough, it's not if we're going to lose students," the superintendent said at one point. "It's when and how many and how fast.”
Officials brought up the district's fiscal position as another factor. Harckham, for example, referenced the challenging shape that the district finds itself in due to the tax levy cap. Kreutzer, however, explained that a school is not being closed because money is needed, but rather it's related to efficiency.
“We would close this building because we have an opportunity to be efficient.”
The efficiency is about keeping classes with lower enrollment. If the numbers drop too much, then it would be hard to afford the corresponding small class sizes.
LES is being considered in particular after the task force determined that Katonah Elementary School and Increase Miller Elementary School have the most classrooms, with 27 each. Closing Meadow Pond Elementary School to the east, which is called a "book-end" building, was not looked at favorably because it would lead to the disruption and movement of more students across the district's four schools. The projected demand for space next school year is 77.5 and closing LES would leave the district with 79 rooms. Schiff noted that demand would fall to 71.5 in 2015-16 and again to 68.5 in 2016-17.
The task force, which was formed in June as the successor to a School Utilization Committee that released a report suggesting a look at school closures, also explored whether to close two schools but it was determined that there was not enough space.
Even though officials declared that their minds were not made up for next year, they still expressed interest at a closure in some point in the future.
If LES is closed in 2014-15 then the district could save $2,250,000 to $2,960,000, depending on how big or small class sizes would be allowed to get. That money would also be considered a reoccurring savings over the following years.
Projected average elementary class sizes for this school year range from the upper teens in kindergarten through second grade, to the low to mid 20's in third, fourth and fifth grades. The district has a "goal" level, which would be 20 for K-2 and 25 for 3-5. The highest levels that are contractually allowed are in the mid 20s for K-2, 28 for third grade and 30 for 4-5.
Other assumptions in the cost include not selling the building, having no revenue from it, a 70-percent energy savings, 2013-level labor costs, 10 sections of full-day kindergarten, and excluding transportation and renovations.
“It's not small money," said Kreutzer.
Some folks, either referencing it in context of the overall budget or thinking in a cost-benefit situation, begged to differ.
“That's practically a rounding error," said parent Greg Goldstein when he referenced the lower estimate.
Raised by some was the district's current state in dealing with salaries and benefits, which comprised roughly 80 percent of the budget. The district has agreed to a new contract with one of its unions but not with those who represent teachers and administrators. It has, however, gotten all three unions to agree on moving to cheaper health insurance, something the Kreutzer noted means savings.
However, in the coming years the superintendent warned that in a few years from now he may not be able to come up with something else. Even with costs continuing to be a problem then, the he warned that he's trying to avoid a bleaker picture.
Some parents argued that there were factors, such as diseconomies of scale, not considered.
Julia Hadlock, for example, raised the idea of property values dropping due to homes being further away from their school. She also argued that declining enrollments means there will already be some savings regardless of whether there is a closure.
During his presentation, Kreutzer described the point in the process as looking at whether can a closure be done. The next aspects to debate are should and then how, he added.
The fact that officials did not have all the answers yet was also raised as a concern.
Emily Pierce, a Lewisboro resident and graduate social worker student, asked if there is a plan in place to deal with the transition for children.
“What is your plan? Do you have a plan?”
Harckham replied by reiterating that they know what the public knows and that it has not been figured out yet.
“And that is absolutely not acceptable," Pierce responded.
The intent is for administrators to look at a best possible transition, Harckham explained.
Kreutzer replied that even though there is no written plan, it has been thought about, noting that administrators have ideas.
Some parents also pointed to the strong performance of LES as a reason against a closure.
Even with the tense atmosphere of the first hearing, Kreutzer ended with an upbeat message.
“This is democracy in action and I like how it went tonight,” he said, then acknowledging the emotional aspect.
Next, the intent is for officials to gather the feedback for consideration. The task force meets again on Oct. 15. The next public hearings, all at the same location, will be on Oct. 21 at 10 a.m., Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.
Major unknown factors include busing routes - a scenario will be run, according to Kreutzer -and redistricting of the kids into other schools.