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Ken-Ton schools weigh options as numbers decline

As the population of the Town of Tonawanda swelled in the years after World War II, the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District tried to keep up with the demand, adding schools and enrollment at a breakneck pace. At its peak in the late 1960s, more than 22,000 students were enrolled in 29 school buildings, making it one of the largest districts in upstate New York.
But the children of the baby boom have moved on, forcing the district to make a series of painful decisions in recent years while planning for a future in which Ken-Ton will be a much different and much smaller school system.
The district is trying to determine what to do with the school buildings and trying to address concerns of parents who wonder where their children will end up, including whether there still will be two district high schools.
Last month, the School Board hired SES Study Team of Canastota to perform a study of the district's buildings and how they're used. Consultants will collect data not only on enrollment trends, but on the condition and capacity of buildings (the newest of which, Holmes Elementary, was built in 1964); the distances between them; the staffing costs; and the community demographics, among other things.
In a process that's expected to last throughout the current school year, the consultants will organize data and identify a series of "doable scenarios," according to Paul M. Seversky of SES. "That's important; our studies aren't hypothetical."
Early next year, data will be presented during a series of four public meetings spread over a month. Then, a group of stakeholders representing a cross-section of the entire community will be selected for a focus group, which will rank a list of scenarios that will be presented to the School Board.
"It's the focus group that really massages that and comes up with options - ultimate options," said School Superintendent Mark Mondanaro.
"Everything we do when we do a study is fully transparent to everybody," Seversky said. "In the end, the community and Board of Education will make the best decisions for the young people in Ken-Ton."
Any district reorganization plan must be approved by the School Board.
Managing decline is not a new concept in Ken-Ton. The population of the town has dropped to 73,567 as of the 2010 census, down from a peak of more than 107,000 in 1970.
Districtwide, enrollment is down to about 7,280 this year.
Since 1974, the district has closed 16 schools. Thirteen remain: two high schools, three middle schools and eight elementary schools.
Jefferson Elementary, which closed for a few years in the early 1980s, will close again next summer. And rumors are flying about what school might be next.
State aid is down from peak levels and not expected to rebound. Usable fund balances and reserves are drying up.
During the last two years, 88 teachers and dozens of other district employees have been laid off, despite millions of dollars in contract concessions by the unions representing them.
As administrators and the School Board fight to preserve the educational program, nonmandated programs have begun taking hits. Discussions about possibly eliminating full-day kindergarten, one of those nonmandated programs, ignited a firestorm earlier this year.
"The only other thing left is asset management," Mondanaro said. "This past budget year . hurt so much."
It is a stark reversal for a district that built 16 new schools and an administration building during the boom years, establishing an extensive neighborhood school system .
"The district couldn't build schools fast enough . for many, many decades," Mondanaro said. "The geography was no bigger; the difference was the population."
As enrollment soared in the late 1960s, graduating classes at Kenmore East High School surpassed 1,000 students.
Today, the entire student body at East is less than 1,000, according to unofficial counts. And there is no indication that the trend will reverse.
Ken-Ton is one of three area suburban districts that were large enough to sustain more than one high school, along with Williamsville and West Seneca. Williamsville has not experienced the population drain that Ken-Ton has, but Erie County's largest suburban school district still keeps a close eye on the numbers.
The Williamsville district has added schools over the last 40 years and closed just one elementary school years ago. There were 12 schools in the district in 1972 and 13 schools today, including a third high school and fourth middle school.
Many people move to Amherst to be part of the Williamsville School District, and that trend has helped stabilize enrollment in recent years.
Williamsville expects enrollment to decline slightly over the next five years, as larger high school classes move on and graduate. Incoming kindergarten classes are smaller than outgoing senior classes, but the district expects the loss to be mitigated by new students moving into the district across all grade levels.
The district's enrollment of about 10,300 students is projected to decrease to 9,848 by 2016, according to the district's annual enrollment study.
West Seneca Central hit its high-water mark in enrollment in 1975, when the district had 15,587 students in 16 schools.
A slow, steady decline has occurred since then, according to Charles Lehman, assistant superintendent of pupil services. On opening day this year, there were 6,837.
"Our culture changed slowly," he said.
Today, West Seneca has two high schools, two middle schools, seven elementary schools and one alternative education school.
Contracting the district again is not on the immediate agenda, Lehman said. But he's always looking at what the district needs.
"We are looking at it, we have to. I've been looking at it since I got here in 1998," he said.
Some in the Ken-Ton community fear that the study will be merely a rubber stamp for a predetermined consolidation plan. But SES, the consultant, doesn't work with clients who already have made up their minds, Seversky said, and won't be "guided" in any one direction. "We won't work for folks who do that," he said.
Whether that stance is reassuring to Ken-Ton residents remains to be seen. For months, the district has been rife with rumors about the impending closure or merger of schools - particularly Kenmore East High School, the newer of the two district high schools.
Peter Stuhlmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association, has heard those rumors.
"Parents are coming to the elementary teachers, [asking], 'What do you know? Where is my child going to end up?' " he said. "Of course, teachers don't have [that] information."
Mondanaro also has heard the rumors.
"The advice I would give: Don't worry about a rumor mill. Stay up with what's really happening," he said.
SES performed a study for an Ulster County school district that approved a redistricting plan for next year. The Kingston City School District will close three of its 10 elementary schools and move all fifth-grade students into its two middle schools, reducing district costs by an estimated $4.76 million a year .
Like Ken-Ton, the Kingston district is facing declining enrollment. Once about 11,000, it stood at 6,748 last year, distributed among 13 schools.
One difference between Kingston and Ken-Ton is the potential for growth in housing.
District residents will be kept apprised of the consolidation study through a special section on the district's website, Mondanaro said a two-page mailing, headlined "Important Consolidation Information," is bound for all homes in the district.
"I think people are going to read it," Mondanaro said.
Meanwhile, the consulting firm and School Board have scheduled an Oct. 2 work session to talk about the impending study. Open to the public, the session begins at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Kenmore East High School, Brighton and Fries roads.

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