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Residents air concerns about Ken-Ton school consolidation

In recent months as the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District embarked on a messy, painful process of looking at closing neighborhood schools, an observer might wonder: Exactly where are the supporters of consolidation?

The majority of residents, parents and staff given an opportunity to address the School board have expressed major concerns – sometimes in highly personal and emotional ways – about the idea.

That was case Thursday night at the board’s special work session, though it was less impassioned than some may have expected.

The two hours of public comment were entirely civil, covering a wide range of issues.

Sandy Barton, a retired teacher, was the first of 20 speakers from an audience of about 150 people in Kenmore East High School’s auditorium. She was among several who told the board that it would be unwise to close Holmes Elementary School, which would be shuttered in seven of the eight scenarios presented by a team of consultants hired by the district.

Barton said she was speaking in memory of Mark L. Kaiser, former principal of Holmes who died last month. “Holmes is a need for this community,” she said. “They service a group of children who – I guess the best way to put it would be – this faculty believes in those kids until they’re able to believe in themselves.”

Holmes was targeted because it has the smallest capacity, School Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro responded.

The meeting was noteworthy because residents for the first time heard from board members about where they stand on the issue.

“I don’t have a big problem with the elementary schools,” said board President Bob Dana. “I’m concerned about the middle schools and the high schools being at 60 percent capacity.”

Many of the board members – some of them parents of students – defined their vested interest and vented a little frustration.

“Nobody gets up and says, ‘Here are some solutions,’ ” said board member Judy Frank.

Stephen Brooks said that “I’m not sold on any of the scenarios” and suggested that whatever scenario is implemented may not be one of the original eight, but a hybrid of several.

New board member Todd Potter, who ran a campaign opposed to consolidation, said he remains committed to that stance, though he is still learning about the study, which began in October.

The board did hear from several residents who appeared mildly supportive of consolidation, saying they recognized that it was inevitable, given soaring salary and benefit costs, flat state aid and declining enrollment.

“I think they did a phenomenal job,” Thomas Mineo said of the consultants, SES Study Team.

Richard Harned, a longtime district resident who ran unsuccessfully for the board in May, said the district has closed schools many times in previous decades and commended the board for its openness this time around.

“On none of those occasions did we have the opportunity to have such an open discussion of what ought to be done,” he said.

Dana said, “We’re looking at everything.”

The next meeting on consolidation will be a work session Aug. 6 in the Philip Sheridan Building Community Room.