Spirited Crowd Rejects School Merger Concept

The Campus Theater at Irvington High School was packed with over 500 parents, teachers, and community members at the Thursday, January 21st evening meeting where Superintendent Kathleen Matusiak and Assistant Superintendent for Business & Facility Management, Jim Reese, delivered a presentation on the possible merging of the two elementary schools within the district – Dows Lane (grades K-3) and Main Street School (grades 4-5). Matusiak began the presentation assuring everyone present that the merger was simply a possibility being considered, and looking at options was something that her administration had been asked to do. “Absolutely no decisions have been made.” she said. “This is really to be able to look at what the possibilities are.”

The essence of the merger concept would be to move the 4th and 5th grades from Main Street School back to Dows Lane, where they were housed as recently as 2003. In order to then accommodate the increase in students at Dows Lane the administration offices would be moved out of the modular buildings they currently use at Dows Lane and into the then-empty Main Street School, then using those modular buildings, along with currently underutilized space at Dows Lane, to house classrooms.

By way of background, there are two main reasons why this merger is even being addressed. The first is declining enrollment in the K-5 grades, which have seen the number of students drop from 925 in the 2004/05 school year to 741 in the current year. Demographic projections expect the enrollment decline to continue for at least the next five years, reaching a low of 693 students for the 2013/14 school year.

The second reason is financial. “One can’t really look at this in isolation;” said Matusiak, “it has to be done in the context of the entire budget development process.” The District is facing a reduction in assessed value, declining state revenue (including a proposed cut in state aid by Governor Patterson of over $360,000), and a potential budget increase of $700,000. There is always the option to do nothing, but in that case, cautioned Reese, “we’d be looking at about a 5-7% increase in the tax rate.”

Matusiak and Reese presented five different options on moving forward. The first option would be for the District to do nothing and find other ways to address the budgetary concerns. The second option would be to proceed with the merger in time for the upcoming 2010/11 school year. The third option would be to delay the merger for a year until the 2011/12 school year. The last two options presented were to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 on a space utilization study that would examine any and all future options for the entire K-12 program, or explore future space consolidation possibilities with the Quad Village Districts (Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on-Hudson, and Irvington). Matusiak was quick to point out that this last scenario, pertaining to space consolidation possibilities, was extremely unlikely.

Throughout the presentation, the crowd listened attentively as Matusiak and Reese spent a full hour laying out what impact a merger would have on the student body and district households.

The presentation moved through a list of pros (one less transition for students going through the school system, a chance to generate revenue with the unused sections of the Main Street School, and others) and cons (indoor recess options would diminish, a limited number of places to hold events such as the book fair or Reader’s Theater) and then reviewed how individual programs would be impacted. The biggest reaction from the crowd came when Matusiak described how the lunch program would be executed in shifts starting at 11:00 and ending at 1:40. One other specific fallout of the merger, and one which raised a tremendous cause for concern, was the impact on class size. The current size of the District’s K-5 classes range between 18 and 20 students per class. As a result of the merger, and the accompanying reduction in the number of classes envisioned, class size would increase to anywhere between 18 and 24 students per class.

The presentation then addressed financial issues, specifically, how much money these proposed changes would end up saving each individual household within the Village of Irvington come tax time. Reese referred to a slide showing how much a home with an assessed value of $20,000 (which translates to a market value of $675,000) would save if the merger were to happen vs. how much that household would save if other measures were taken and the schools were not merged. The result?

$86 a year.

Once the presentation was over, the floor was turned over to the audience for questions and comments. As expected, one of the biggest concerns centered on the possible increase in class size. Parent after parent took the microphone with grave misgivings about adding three or four or five more students into each class in the name of saving money. As one woman put it, “We’re not just here for the budget, we’re here for the children and the education of our children.”

Others spoke of how their decision to move into Irvington was based in part on the great school system, and that if they were to have looked at the Village after a merger such as this had taken place, they would probably have made a different decision. One parent worried that filling Dows Lane to the brim, with kids using multiple modular buildings alongside the regular building, would make the place look like “a trailer park” that would drive away incoming families and bring everyone’s property values down.

A number of parents and community members gave emotional testimony, referencing their own experiences growing up in the Irvington School District, and they worried that their children were in danger of being forced to sacrifice some of what made Irvington so special. A mother tried to put everything in perspective. “I’m looking at the numbers, and it looks like you’re doing all this rearranging of our kids, causing all this disruption, taking children out of Main Street School, and we’re gonna save an average of $86 per household?”

As the evening wore on, it became obvious that the parents and community members who filled the theater had similar opinions and strong feelings about the merger. At one point, a parent asked for a show of hands of people who were in favor of the merger. Only four or five of the over 500 present raised their hand.

Through it all, Superintendent Matusiak listened, answered questions, and reminded everyone that this was not a proposal, but rather a presentation of a possibility and its options. Her administration had been asked by members of the community to look into what a merger would entail, and this report was simply their findings, not a recommendation. She thanked the audience for attending, and asked that everyone bring the same passion and energy to the general budget meetings so that all of these voices could be heard.

Near the end of the meeting, a mother with students in the high school stood up to inject some sober reality into the crowd. If this plan were shot down, it wouldn’t change the financial situation in which the district finds itself. The budget will need to be cut or taxes will need to be raised. If savings aren’t realized in the elementary schools, chances are some of them will once again be realized in the high school and middle school, which are also crowded and have already been forced to drop entire courses in order to save money. Losing even more AP courses and electives, and having even more crowded high school and middle school classes, could lower the property values even more than if merging the two elementary schools.

Matusiak ended the meeting with a call for more participation and attendance at upcoming meetings to ensure that the will of the entire community be heard. As for the evening’s presentation and discussion, she carefully laid out the next steps. “At the February 2nd Board of Education meeting, there will be an agenda item [for the school merger possibility]. After getting input this evening and in future meetings with various constituents and staff, I’m sure this will come up in context of that discussion. Then, I will be developing my recommendation for the Board as to whether we should move forward for next year or whether we should not.”

She declined to say what her recommendation would be, but made it clear that she understood and would take into consideration the very strong opinions expressed at the evening’s meeting as she would begin to formulate her recommendation.

[blockquote]Video of the meeting is available online at www.IrvingtonSchools.org[/blockquote]

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About the Author: David Neilsen