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City of Tonawanda considers shrinking to one elementary school

City of Tonawanda residents this fall will decide whether to close two elementary schools as part of a major district reorganization.

Students from the shuttered Mullen and Riverview elementary schools would move to Fletcher Elementary School, which would be renovated and expanded in a $53.5 million project that is part of the district's long-term TONA2020 planning.

The Tonawanda School Board on Tuesday voted to put the proposal before voters Oct. 22. District officials say the project will result in higher taxes for district property owners, but it's cheaper than completing the renovations required at all three elementary schools.

"It is more efficient over a longer period of time," Superintendent Timothy Oldenburg said, "to have all of our students under one roof."

The elementary school consolidation is the culmination of process to plan for the district's future that began a dozen years ago. It morphed into the TONA2020 initiative in 2013, but the district had already taken steps to address declining enrollment and find efficiencies as expenses rise.

Tonawanda's enrollment has fallen almost 20% from 2,250 in 2004-2005 to 1,810 currently, according to the district.

The district over the past decade or so relocated its football stadium from Clint Small Stadium on Main Street to the middle/high school complex on Fletcher Street and closed and sold Highland Elementary School and its administrative offices on Broad Street.

In 2015, a condition survey of the buildings in the district found the three remaining elementary schools required $70.7 million in repairs and improvements, Oldenburg said.

A consolidation proposal the district weighed the following year ballooned to the point that it was too expansive and costly to present to voters, he said, so the idea languished even as the need for it remained.

The district is restricted by New York's 2% annual property tax cap and by unfunded mandates regularly imposed by the state.

"We need to change our footprint," Oldenburg said.

Today, about 272 students in fourth and fifth grade attend the Fletcher school, 324 students in universal pre-K to third grade attend Riverview and 251 students in kindergarten through third attend Mullen, the district reported.

Under the plan voters will consider, Fletcher would expand to host all pre-K through fifth grade classes.

Oldenburg and Heather Sternin, the School Board president, said Fletcher was chosen to stay open in large part because it is more centrally located than the other two schools and students there can use the swimming pool at the middle and high school complex.

The district would renovate or replace the roof, kitchen and cafeteria, auditorium, classrooms and other parts of the existing building at 555 Fletcher St. It also would tear down a portion of the school and build two-story additions on either side of the current structure, to add a covered entry, new gym and locker rooms, media center, main office and other features.

Work on the grounds also would include a new bus loop, parking lots and accessible playgrounds.

The $53.5 million cost of the project is offset by $37.9 million in state aid.

This includes $12.9 million in additional, one-time-only state aid Tonawanda could use on this project but not for anything else in the district, Oldenburg said. He said the state sweetened its offer of support because it calculated the consolidation project makes more sense than paying for work at three elementary schools.

"It really seems the time is now to take this step," Sternin said, comparing it to a car owner debating whether to repair or replace an old car. "It's time to buy a new one."

The Fletcher school project would cost $17.2 million less than making needed renovations to three buildings, Oldenburg said, but the district still would raise taxes to pay off its share of the consolidation plan. The state would cover 61% of the cost, district funds would cover 11% and taxpayers would shoulder the remaining 28%.

The owner of an average home in the district assessed at $108,000 would pay an additional $129.91 annually until the bond is paid off. Property owners who have the Basic STAR exemption would pay $93.83 annually and homeowners with Enhanced STAR would pay $47.27 per year.

For the measure to pass, a supermajority of 60% of voters would have to approve it. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Tonawanda High School wellness gym, 600 Fletcher St. The district plans to hold informational meetings with the public over the next month to present the plan.

Parents and other residents often oppose school closings, which can be emotional decisions because people can feel a strong connection to the building.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district in 2016 closed Kenmore Middle School and Roosevelt and Hamilton elementary schools as the climax of a painful districtwide restructuring.

West Seneca over the last half-dozen years closed two elementary schools. And the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has closed numerous schools in the face of declining enrollment.

Sternin said she understands as well as anyone. She said she attended Riverview school in the 1960s – as did her four brothers – and she remembers the name of everyone who taught her there to this day.

"It's very much a part of my life and my neighborhood," Sternin said, but it's the teachers and staff who matter, not the physical structure.

If approved, the district would hope to sell the buildings. The former Highland Elementary School, for example, closed in 2009 and is now People Inc.'s Highland School Apartments for low-income residents and people with disabilities.

If voters agree, and the state Education Department signs off on the project, construction would begin in spring 2021 and wrap up in time for Fletcher to reopen in September 2023.

While construction is underway, Fletcher fifth graders would attend class in a distinct wing of the middle school and fourth graders would go to school in annex classrooms connected to Riverview and Mullen.

Employees of the shuttered elementary schools would follow the students to Fletcher. If any positions are no longer needed, the district would look to make cutbacks through attrition, Oldenburg said.


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