Challengers seek seats on Onteora school board

Some parents in the Onteora school district are still smarting from the Board of Education's recent decision to reconfigure its three elementary schools.

By adopting the current plan, which takes effect in the fall, the board was able to cut the budget and avoid closing the Phoenicia Elementary School. But the plan introduces a new grade clustering plan for all of the district's elementary students, and many children will now be attending a different school in the fall than the one they currently attend.

Two parents who had opposed the reconfiguration are now running for the Onteora School Board: Shokan resident Rebecca Balzac, and Glenford resident Cybele Nielsen.

Balzac recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Watershed Post announcing her candidacy.

Balzac and Nielsen will run against incumbent school board members Tony Fletcher of Mt. Tremper and Laurie Osmond of Willow. The election will be held on May 15.

Fletcher also announced his intention to run again via a letter to the editor. He and Osmond have also started a Facebook page for their re-election campaign.

During the board's long process of deciding how to reconfigure Onteora's elementary schools, both Balzac and Nielsen were outspoken advocates of a plan that would have closed the Phoenicia school. In January, Balzac made an impassioned plea for a two-school plan to the school board, arguing that adopting a three-school plan could force the district to make future cuts to educational programs:

The news coming from the state is bleak, and looks to be getting only bleaker. We should select the choice that will maximize our savings. To go with the most expensive option when we are in the midst of such major financial uncertainty is a risky proposition.

Nielsen wrote to the Woodstock Times in January that politics, not education, was behind the decision not to adopt a two-school plan:

It is tremendously sad to close a school as beloved as the Phoenicia school. Trying to keep all of our community schools open is a noble cause. It is, however, relevant to mention that all of the BOE members who have school-aged children live in the Phoenicia district. While they will undoubtedly make a Herculean effort to remain objective, and to serve our entire district, the Bennett and Woodstock communities are not represented.

When Balzac announced her campaign for the school board this week, we asked her whether she was running because of parent dissatisfaction with the board's reconfiguration decision. Here is her emailed reply:

The short answer is yes and no, and I’d like to give you an explanation. 

It would be more accurate to say that the dissatisfaction is with what the vote shows about how our current board works. This was expressed by parents with children in the high school and middle school, not just parents of elementary school kids.  The Board members’ first questions in a decision of such scope should be what is the educational and financial impact for the whole district.  The feeling is that that the majority of Board members didn’t seriously consider the answer to those questions in the reconfiguration vote.  Some of the members were quite open in stating that they didn’t want to close the Phoenicia Elementary school and that was why they voted the way they did.  

By going with the most expensive plan (which will become even more expensive if the new transportation plan is adopted, which is very likely) they certainly didn’t consider the financial aspect to be most important, and by going with a plan which doesn’t have any precedent to measure success, they didn’t consider the education benefit to be paramount either. 

All of this shows that the majority of the Board members are basing their decisions on priorities that don’t serve the whole district well. That has led to a widespread dissatisfaction, which is also shared by parents of students and of soon-to-be students in the High School and Middle School.  They are very worried that budget requirements will limit access that their children have to classes and electives that will help them get into college or prepare them for a workplace. 

Although I wasn’t in favor of the decision when it was made, I don’t plan on trying to overturn the decision if I’m elected. I expect that the Board and administration will be working toward getting teachers and students settled in whichever schools they are slated for. I realize that trying to change the vote and undo the work that is being done would only add chaos.  A lot of parents are waiting on variance requests, are adjusting work schedules to accommodate different bus times and in general planning their lives around the decision as is, and I don’t want anyone, including my two children, to have to go through another readjustment.  What I want to do is make sure that parents have confidence in their board as the process continues.

For his part, Fletcher thinks that the new plan has educational benefits, and disagrees with the notion that the decision was made on behalf of Phoenicia parents.

"The decision that was reached was fully intended to benefit everybody across the entire district," he said. "The decision was difficult. But there was never any need to close a school, and there was never a justification to close a school."

Fletcher also sent the following statement, via email:

What do you say to people who are still upset that you didn't close a school?

The District is far better off with keeping the three Elementaries open under the new configuration. Six of us on the Board felt that closing a school was absolutely the wrong way to go for reasons we went into time and again at board meetings and elsewhere. We really need to move forward and put the school closure argument behind us; it has rarely had anything to do with education and far too much to do with other issues.

What do you say to people who are upset that their elementary environment is different next year - that their children are going to a different school than they would have expected a year ago?

We fully understand and empathize. We have changed the footprint of the District and in many ways it is sad to realize that Woodstock and Phoenicia will no longer house 4th through 6th Graders, nor Bennett K-3rd Graders. And I am a parent. I know that we get comfortable with our routines, especially with our children, and would like to preserve them as long as possible. But just about everybody in the District understood that a change had to take place; the question became whether just about everybody was willing to accept some change within their own environment or whether they expected it solely of other people. I fully believe that the change in grade structure next year is best for everyone, across the District, even as I fully recognize and understand that for some parents, it is more upheaval than they would like.

How have you tried to make the transition easier?

All along, we said that if we were going to go with the 'Bookends' plan, we would offer a 3rd Grade at Bennett next year so that this year's 2nd Graders didn't have to change school twice in two years. I am thrilled that Transportation has come up with another busing model that allows Grades 4-6, for the new configuration at Bennett, to start later in the morning, at the current Elementary Grade time and not the Middle School/High School time. I am also glad for the parents who were concerned about it that they won't be on the bus with older students. (The Board will be voting on this plan at its next meeting, on Wednesday the 25th.) I recognize that we are asking a lot of our District parents all at once and I would like them to realize that we are trying to mitigate the transition issues as much as we possibly can.