As the Katonah-Lewisboro school board continued discussing its vision for the programs and services offered in the district, the conversation was anchored by the financial and demographic realities that have emerged over the past few months. At its meeting on Thursday, Nov. 29, the board discussed how its programmatic priorities would coincide with the potential closing of an elementary school.
The need for a committee
The board members are well aware of what a large undertaking it would be to close one of the district’s four elementary schools, particularly in light of the recent demographic report predicting a 17% drop in the student body by the 2016-17 school year and the fiscal realities of a state-mandated 2% tax cap.
“We should have a committee that is commissioned for the purpose of looking at capacity of our facilities,” said Dr. Paul Kreutzer, superintendent of schools. “I don’t like calling it a school closure committee because that might not be the result they come up with, but they certainly need to talk about how to rectify the total amount of space we currently own and occupy in the light of having 1,100 fewer students than we did at our high water mark. It may mean closing wings, consolidating programs or closing a school, but that should be done by a larger group than just the administration.”
On Dec. 13, the board will appoint committee members and has invited members of the public to participate to fully research the possibility of closing an elementary school. The board is keenly aware of how sensitive a topic school closings can be.
“I’m not big on doing committees just to have committees, but it is a big enough issue,” board member Peter Breslin said. “I think it deserves its own attention and it is an opportunity to get our community involved and get buy-in on what is going to be a very contentious issue.”
Board member Janet Harckham and Superintendent for Business Michael Jumper agreed that the issue would likely hit a nerve for some community members and would require a variety of input, including from administrators, operations administrators and architects.
“It is going to feel like an attack to any person who is devoted to their local school,” Ms. Harckham said. “It doesn’t have to, and I said earlier I would stand in front of Increase Miller because I love that local school.”
Board member Marjorie Schiff said the board would be remiss to not take notice of the difficult and divisive school closure process that Ridgefield, Conn., has undergone over the last year.
While no specific elementary schools have been mentioned for possible closure, one board member did say that if a school was to close, it would be a choice between two of the four schools, but did not mention specific schools.
“I think we should remind the viewers at home that this is not something that would occur for fall of next year, period,” Ms. Harckham said. “Don’t freak out.”
In addition to possibly closing a school, district leaders are discussing the potential for adding full-day kindergarten.
Full-day kindergarten has topped the lists of board members and administrators as the most necessary and beneficial improvement to the district. Board member Charles Day has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact the district is one of a handful in the state to not offer full-day kindergarten.
Ms. Harckham has also emphasized the necessity of all-day kindergarten as it relates to the state-mandated common core standards for curriculum.
The mandated curriculum that begins in the first grade requires a solid kindergarten foundation, and without that foundation, she said, children are starting first grade at a deficit.
“At some point we are going to have to move to all-day kindergarten,” said Alice Cronin, assistant superintendent for instruction.
Also among the board’s priorities are adding Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) and maintaining healthy class sizes. But as fiscal realities draw nearer, the board also discussed a number of ways the district might save money, particularly if an expensive expansion of kindergarten is in the district’s sights.
“This whole discussion, as far as I know, is pretty much financially orientated,” board member Dr. Peter Treyz said. “It depends on what the budget is going to look like as to what we can do. I don’t see much point in developing any of this until we get a good handle on what the budget looks like for next year.”
With the financial landscape as it is, the board’s continued programmatic vision discussion was coupled with where it is willing to save and cut back.
Allowing class sizes to increase within the contractual range was a possibility for a few board members, with others willing to discuss the issue with administrators as long as specialized programs at the high school are not cut for having too few students.
Reductions in transportation costs were also looked at as an area where savings might be found.
Board member Stephanie Tobin expressed some reservations about this, citing the already tight choreography required to get students to school with the fewest buses and drivers. Mr. Day commented on the early hour at which many students already have to be awake to catch the bus.
Full-day kindergarten dominated the board’s attention, but such a program would come with added obstacles and far-reaching implications, Ms. Harckham said.
In particular, full-day kindergarten’s impact on district faculty numbers would inform a decision on whether to close an elementary school in the coming years.
“If full-day kindergarten is a topic we need to explore further, in my mind it is intrinsically linked to [faculty] capacities and then closing a school,” Ms. Harckham said.