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Dealing with the dilemma of decline

Faced with declining enrollment and school buildings in need of at least $20 million in improvements, the North Tonawanda School Board may consider closing a school or two in the not-too-distant future.

The matter has been briefly broached as a possibility at two School Board meetings over the past several months, when the board decided to come up with a capital projects plan to bring its buildings up to state standards.

All are currently listed as unsatisfactory.

The district's student enrollment is expected to have dropped by about 1,500 children from 1996 to 2016, School Superintendent Vincent J. Vecchiarella said.

"There are many options to consider, and closing a school building is one of them," Vecchiarella said. "The board doesn't want to throw good money after bad" by investing money in a school building that may not be open several years down the line.

The names of Gilmore Elementary School, as well as Grant School -- an old elementary school that now houses the district's universal prekindergarten and alternative high school programs -- were mentioned in this regard at board meetings over the summer.

"At this point it's something that's been tossed out there," board President Christine M. Porto said. "It's really not something that we have talked about in detail.

"The superintendent has kind of thrown the idea around along with others and just said these are some options. We haven't had any serious discussions about closing buildings. These are things we'll have to discuss, but it's nothing that's been written in stone or decided or voted on."

Falling numbers have prompted talk of more serious consideration.

>Report expected

The district has seen its enrollment drop by 1,270 students over the last dozen years, and an enrollment projection study conducted a year ago predicts the district will see its student population drop by another 228 students in the next nine years.

That's a 1,498 enrollment drop -- about 27 percent of the student population -- from 1996 to 2016, down from 5,546 students to an estimated 4,080.

Porto said she's not so sure the board will decide to close any schools because it has yet to study the issue. She said a lot of information needs to be gathered and analyzed before a step like that might be taken.

"I don't want to jump to the conclusion that we need to close a school before we look at whether we have adequate space in the schools we have now," Porto said.

Schools have changed in the past 20 years, she said, and the district may need all the space it has to handle new technologies and educational demands.

Kideney Architects of Amherst, the architectural firm the School Board hired to help develop a capital projects plan, has been going to each school to do research to help the board determine what each building needs now and in the future.

The firm is looking at how space is used and what each school building needs to serve the district's children for a very long time, Porto and Vecchiarella said.

A report is expected in about a month.

But the decline in student population is not new. It already has been addressed to a degree with the closing of Lowry Middle School in June 2004 and Grant School as an elementary facility in June 2001.

There also has been school redistricting, Porto said.

"Whether there needs to be more is something that we really have to look into," she said, "because at this point the buildings seem to be utilized to their maximum capabilities. I guess we'll have to look at how much the enrollment is dropping and many other factors to determine if it's enough to warrant closing a building."

Porto warned, however, that it's not enough for the board to deal with what the district looks like now. It also has to plan for the future "to make the district better and to raise student performance," and consider if the downward trend in student population might turn around.

The board will be presented $70 million in proposed improvement projects to consider -- $20 million worth of them just to place each school on the the state's satisfactory list.

"We want to look forward and make sure we are making the right decisions . . .," Porto said. "We want to find out what is the best way to use the money we spend for capital projects. We have to be realistic and responsible by putting money into buildings we know we'll be using."

As for the comments on Gilmore School, Porto said, "I think it was mentioned because it's one of our older buildings."

She said that doesn't mean it would be closed.

"Some people feel Gilmore is a very sound building" that has many good years left to serve a stable neighborhood community, she said.

Any decisions that come along will be done with input from the community.

Porto said Vecchiarella is putting together a special committee to help develop the capital improvement plan. It will study district buildings and come back with recommendations to the board on capital projects that could indicate which buildings need the most attention, and, if necessary, what school or schools it might be necessary to close at some point.

"We don't want to do this in a vacuum," Porto said. "We want to have community members and parents and staff on that committee and get the feedback we really need in trying to get a feel for what direction the people who will be affected want to go in."

Vecchiarella agreed.

"We need to know what our space utilization needs are before we do anything," he said.

Along with at least $20 million on capital improvements to get district buildings to state standards, the district also needs to spend about $2 million to provide its schools improved wiring and technology, the superintendent said.

Vecchiarella also said the buildings are not a danger to students but need to be brought up to modern state standards.

Steady decline

But there's no getting around the fact that enrollment has fallen considerably.

North Tonawanda High School's enrollment was at 2,000 in the 1990s.

It's just under 1,600 today and will have about 1,200 students in another two or three years, Vecchiarella said.

He said the capital plan committee -- a 21-member unit he is putting together -- "will have to take our enrollment projections, building facilities and condition reports, capital project study, the information the architect receives from building principals and other information into consideration before it makes a recommendation to the board" for capital improvements.

That could mean the elimination of a school building or two.

"There are a lot of options to consider," he said.

It also could include reconfiguring the grade levels at different school buildings to make for a more efficient use of space.

"We could make the high school a junior-senior high school and turn North Tonawanda Middle School into an intermediate school for grades four, five and six," he said.

Combined, such a school likely would have fewer students than the high school had alone during the 1990s, the superintendent said.

He also said the six prekindergarten classes at Grant School could easily be moved to other elementary schools, thus eliminating he need for Grant. The changes also could offer the possibility of eliminating another elementary school.

"This could be an option for the future," Vecchiarella said.

"We haven't even begun to explore any options at this point," he added. "We are just saying that this is something that could be considered. We're not saying it would be the best thing or the only thing. What we are saying is another building could be closed in the future.

"If the discussion gets that far, we then have to decide what school that would be. Would it be Gilmore or some other building? That determination does not have to be made at this point. . . . What we need to do first is examine our future needs so we can act accordingly."

Vecchiarella said that process will kick off later this month, when the special committee will work to come up with a capital plan.

Then the board will take that information and decide what it wants to do and send it to voters for approval during a public referendum, hopefully by April.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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