Onteora reconfiguration: A Bennett parent pleads for a two-school solution

On Tuesday, the Onteora Central School district held yet another meeting to discuss the planned reconfiguration of its three elementary schools, which could result in the closing of the Phoenicia School or the re-shuffling of grade levels among the district's three elementary schools.

But while Onteora goes through the painful process of deciding whether to close a school, change is afoot at the state level that could mean even greater uncertainty for local parents and students. The Freeman reports:

[Onteora superintendent Phyllis] McGill has heard murmurs that the state Education Department is preparing to make radical changes to the school system statewide by erasing district borders in some places and making countywide districts and dissolving some districts altogether and having surrounding districts absorb pieces of them.

For now, Onteora is working under the assumption that the district is here to stay and, faced with dire financial projections, the administration is seeking ways to cut costs, including the possible closure of the Phoenicia Elementary School.

Many Phoenicia residents are rallying around the only reconfiguration option that would keep their school open: the "bookends" plan, which would put grades K-3 in Woodstock and Phoenicia, and 4-6 in Bennett.

A recent post on the Phoenicia, NY blog includes an anonymous, and rather unscientific, online poll asking readers whether they favor closing the school. The poll may be a reponse to a petition circulated by Bennett parents opposing the "bookends" plan.

The Watershed Post received a letter recently from Bennett parent Rebecca Balzac, who enclosed a copy of her comments at the Onteora Board of Education's meeting on Tuesday night. Balzac's comments follow:

There are three distinct aspects to the consideration of the reconfiguration. The first is financial. In this regard, there isn’t a question in my mind of which is of the three options is the best. The model that calls for closing the Phoenicia elementary school and turns Woodstock into a K-3 (or 2) and Bennett into a 3 (or) 4-6 is the only model that won’t run us into a deficit in five years.

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.

This is the best plan in educational terms as well. While the benefits of the “bookends” plan appear attractive, those benefits are purely theoretical. This model was not cited at the last meeting as one followed by area districts. I haven’t heard any concrete data that shows any results of this model, positive or otherwise. We don’t know the reasons that our students are underperforming.

Without knowing the cause, it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the "bookends" approach will provide the solution we are looking for. I appreciate that with your years of experience in education, Dr. McGill, you can hypothesize about outcomes with a much higher degree of accuracy than most of us in this room. Hypotheses are ultimately guesses, however, no matter how educated, and there is nothing to show that the theoretical benefits will be any better then the two-school Princeton plan model. At best, it is a very expensive guess.

The last aspect that I want to address is the emotional one, and this is where the real sticking point is. I understand the attempt being made to preserve the Phoenicia Elementary School. Maintaining a school we can’t afford, however, for the sake of sentimentality ignores the reality of our situation. Whether or not closing the school will be detrimental to Phoenicia, Boiceville or Woodstock remains to be seen and is really outside the purview of the Board. The Board’s fiduciary responsibility is to find the best educational and financial alternative to our current situation, not to protect an individual town’s retail environment.

For those of you who may think that I’m speaking just so my children won’t be greatly affected, be aware that the two-school Princeton plan model will cause a great deal of upheaval for my family. We have been a Bennett family since 2005 when my daughter, now in fifth grade, started kindergarten. We now also have a son in kindergarten. Under this plan, he will switch schools. All he and our family have known since he was baby is Bennett Elementary. We know the gym teacher, the principal, the nurse, and the office workers, and they know my kids. I will be dealing with two different buses, picking them up at two different schools, in opposite directions, when they have their dentist appointments and their haircuts.

I am very disturbed by the “us vs. them” attitude that has cropped up. Please don’t diminish what my family will have to deal with by focusing on what is happening in your town. Please don’t attack the Bennett parents for doing what they think is best for their children and the district. They are doing just are you are, and it appears to be forgotten that this transition will impact people all over the district.

I ask those parents who are arguing for adoption of the “bookend” plan, the plan that will ultimately cost the most money, a question that I will answer first. I understand that you don’t want your lives disrupted, and you want continuity for your children, and you want to stay with what you know and are familiar with. But at what cost? If keeping the Phoenicia school open means cutting over $2 million worth of programs, which are you willing to say should be eliminated? What options do you think it is OK to take away from my children, so that yours can keep going to this elementary school?

In my case, nothing. My family would rather go through the upheaval I just spoke about then have my kids, or yours, go to an elementary or high school/middle school that is devoid of sports, music, AP classes or any of the other programs that give them such a rich school experience.

Thank you,

Rebecca L. Balzac

Earlier: Former Phoenicia parent Robert Burke Warren argues for the "bookends" plan.