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Ken-Ton Schools digging way out from ‘rock bottom’

It’s been a tough year for the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

Three schools will close next month. Millions of dollars in annual revenue dried up when the Huntley power plant closed. And relations between teachers and administrators last month reached a low point over curriculum concerns.

“To be totally honest, I think we’ve hit rock bottom,” School Board President Jill Y. O’Malley said.

But then she added: “we’re starting to dig ourselves out.”

The district will likely be able to tap into a $30 million fund included in the state budget to help offset the loss of $3 million from the March closure of Huntley.

After improvements in student achievement, Ken-Ton in February was removed from the state’s list of districts requiring extra oversight and placed in “good standing.”

And the district’s leaders and officers in the Kenmore Teachers Association late this week in a joint memo pledged to work together to reform their collaboration and communication.

All this is happening just as residents head to the polls Tuesday to vote on a $157.1 million budget and three seats on the School Board.

“It’s really a sink-or-swim moment,” O’Malley said. “I’m fairly optimistic.”

Transition time

Bittersweet closing ceremonies are being held this month for students, parents and teachers at Roosevelt and Hamilton elementary schools and Kenmore Middle School. It’s the culmination of a consolidation plan that began in 2012 as enrollment continued to decline to its current count of just under 7,000 students.

Hamilton was the first to mark the occasion, with an assembly Tuesday when time capsules were opened and students were shown how styles and culture changed through the decades since the school opened in 1959. It was followed by an open house Wednesday for alumni who were welcome to walk the halls and revisit former teachers and classrooms.

“It’s a small school where everybody knows everybody,” said Nicole Cunningham, Hamilton’s PTA president. “But the kids are resilient. They’re doing a great job in the district of making them welcome into their new schools.”

Her daughter will start fourth grade at nearby Edison Elementary in the fall, and be grouped with fellow former Hamilton students to help alleviate the stress of moving to a new school.

Meanwhile, Kenmore Middle will hold a closing celebration Friday, beginning with an open house featuring memorabilia displays at 4:30 p.m., and an adults-only gala at Banchetti’s by Rizzo in Amherst on May 21. Roosevelt holds its closing from 1 until 4 p.m. on May 21, and an end-of-year celebration at Hamilton is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. June 17.

Parents who graduated from Kenmore Middle and longtime teachers and staff are taking the closing harder than students, said Dawn Oliveri, PTA president and a graduate of the school, which opened in 1924 as Kenmore High School.

“The kids now are just going on as normal,” she said. “I don’t think they really know the magnitude of this school closing.”

When the schools are shuttered, Ken-Ton will be down to nine schools and begin classes in September with 12 fewer teachers after a round of retirements and layoffs.

Grade level configurations are changing, too. Elementary will be kindergarten through fourth grade; middle school, grades 5 through 7; and grades 8 through 12 in the two high schools.

More students will be eligible for bus transportation after voters last year approved relaxing the limits, which, in turn, necessitated changes to the district’s start and end times. The district will move to a three-tiered system that has high school bells ringing first, followed by middle then elementary.

And attendance boundaries have been redrawn.

Clearly, Ken-Ton will function very differently come September.

“We’re not just closing buildings,” said O’Malley. “We’re restructuring everything.”

Huntley impact

Expected savings from the plan to close schools was placed at $4 million, but that won’t be fully realized until next year or 2018 at the earliest, said Superintendent Dawn F. Mirand.

The staff reduction has led to some savings in this year’s proposed budget, but the savings would have been greater if not for the loss of revenue from a PILOT – payment in lieu of taxes – agreement with NRG Energy, which owns the Huntley site, she said this week.

The loss of revenue from the power plant on River Road has created a bit of an unusual situation in the proposed budget, which includes a tax levy increase of 3.98 percent. If the district successfully applies for and receives aid from the state fund by an Aug. 10 deadline, the increase can be lowered to 3.5 percent, which would save the average homeowner about $10 on their tax bill.

“We are trying to show a good-faith effort to our community that we really are mindful of shifting the Huntley tax burden onto the community,” said Mirand, who announced this week an agreement with the board to freeze her salary for the 2016-17 school year.

District officials are awaiting policies and deadlines from Empire State Development, which was tasked with administering the plant closure fund. But they’re confident Ken-Ton will be a prime candidate.

“I think it will just be a matter of plugging in information we already have into the formula they give us, or those guidelines they give us,” said O’Malley. “I don’t think we’ll have to reinvent the wheel.”

There were hopes the savings could be used to restore programs that have been trimmed such as health class and physical education, which teachers say is especially needed at the elementary level.

“Because of the closing of Huntley and we’re not seeing any of those savings, we weren’t able to do that,” said Mirand.

Teacher turmoil

When Mirand took over two years ago, the district was in its second year under the watchful eye of the state as a “focus district” because of some declining student achievement. She said she quickly instituted changes based on recommendations from the state Education Department.

But it also provoked a backlash from teachers that boiled over at last month’s School Board meeting when dozens of the powerful union’s 680 members lambasted the district’s leadership.

They said their autonomy to teach freely in the classroom had been stripped and replaced by scripted modules and canned curriculums.

Mirand attributed the uproar to some “misunderstandings,” adding, “I think because some changes were made so quickly, there was a lot of angst amongst teachers and that was never the intent. The intention was to give and do whatever we could do to support teachers in the classroom.”

The tensions appear to have eased by Friday when a joint memo was signed by both sides.

“This blueprint lays out some strategies and the good news is we both agreed that we’re going to use the memo as a checkpoint,” said union president Peter C. Stuhlmiller. “It becomes a very focused blueprint that’s going to actually be used as an anchor so we can check progress along the way.”

Mirand is also hopeful about repairing relations with teachers and the overall direction of Ken-Ton.

“I think all the things that happened over the last two years help us understand where we need to go and that we need to go there together,” she said. “I am very excited about renewed, increased, enhanced stakeholder participation opportunities.

“We’re making sure we attend to the needs of all kids in all areas, all aspects. It’s really about addressing what our kids need to be the best and the brightest in the world after they leave our school district.”