Before a crowd of Altamont community members wearing bright red shirts with the words “It Takes a Village” on it, scenarios from Guilderland school district’s recent building study were removed.
Several Altamont Elementary School parents have rallied against the school’s potential closure since consultant Paul Seversky’s building capacity study was released in the spring. Four out of the five scenarios to use space more effectively would shutter the village school. Some school board members contend the only focus of the study among district residents has been the scenarios, but primarily against Altamont closing.
Guilderland Board of Education members unexpectedly voted 7-2 at the Tuesday, Aug. 19, meeting to set aside scenarios presented in the building capacity study in favor of community members and the board developing their own options. Board members Colleen O’Connell and Judy Slack voted in opposition.
“We are all in this together,” said Barbara Fraterrigo, president of the Guilderland school board. “It gives us time to work with our fellow citizens to perhaps come up with other scenarios, but I just want to caution everybody … the day may come when some school in this district may have to close.”
Slack said she was “somewhat uncomfortable” with the motion because it could seem the district is saying it will not close a school, which has yet to be determined.
Board Vice President Allan Simpson said he did not agree with the scenarios primarily focusing on only closing one school. The only other school included in a scenario for closure was Lynnwood Elementary School.
Altamont has the most building space not being used out of the elementary schools. The building with the most unused space districtwide though, falling around 30 percent, is the middle school.
“The point really should be it could be any one of the schools,” said Simpson. “It shouldn’t be just focused on one school or two schools. In my opinion, it should be taking the whole lot of all the buildings together, so we can analyze what is the best decision for the whole community.”
Fellow member Gloria Towle-Hilt said ending the report right before the scenarios will allow the district to start with a “blank slate.” This would also mean the upcoming community focus group could discuss what options the district might review.
Board members have purposefully not shared any opinions on scenarios presented in the study, or what direction the district should or shouldn’t take to use space more effectively.
Altamont Mayor James Gaughan argued the lack of public communication about what the district has done with the study information has only fueled discontent among the residents.
“I appreciate your process and procedure. As you say, it’s a matter of practice that you do not do anything but listen (during public comment at board meetings),” said Gaughan. “Here is a piece of advice … this is different. … To wait and listen for now two months and wait and listen for more months, and not respond in any way shape or form to some of the points that have been brought up, I think is a communication mistake.”
The board moved to set the scenarios aside after hearing from several Altamont residents urging the board not to close Altamont.
April Alex, mother of an Altamont elementary student and middle school student, moved to the Guilderland school district particularly for the elementary school.
“When I came to Altamont, I literally fell in love with the school, literally fell in love with the program,” Alex said. “The reality is when people move to a community, they move for the elementary school. They don’t just ignore the first five years of a child’s education.”
Seversky previously said families move to a school district for the overall quality of education and not the reputation of an individual elementary school. Several speakers continued stressing property values would decrease in the village if the school closed, which contrasted with what Seversky claimed.
Eric Merrifield said his family moved from Seattle, Wash., about two years ago to Altamont, with the elementary school a key reason.
“The Altamont Elementary School has a remarkable community. … It is an extraordinary place, and our son is thriving there,” he said. “All of those intangibles of the benefits to the community are lost in a report like this. None of those appear in these metrics, but they all have value.”
Merrifield went through a similar process in Seattle and ended up witnessing the closure of nine schools. Some schools were appropriately closed, he said, but many were “good schools with good performance.” However, the data pointed to closing them.
“The metrics that you are looking at are not the only metrics out there,” Merrifield said. “Statistics require manipulation of numbers and a lot of assumptions, and unless you know what those assumptions are, you don’t know whether the predictions are correct.”
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