Story and photo by Terry Duffy
Discussions on overriding the state's 2 percent tax cap and district consolidation dominated a work session of the Wilson Central School District Board of Education in Ransomville on Tuesday. It was a meeting that not only examined the impact of district consolidation on students, but also one that saw emphatic pleas by hundreds of Ransomville residents who rallied against a possible closing of W.H. Stevenson Elementary School.
"I don't think we've ever had a crowd like this for a work session, commented Wilson School Board President Timothy Kropp as the meeting got under way.
A crowd of close to 500 packed the gym at Stevenson. There, residents heard first on the tax cap voting scenarios and the what-ifs, followed by building comparisons of Stevenson to Thomas Marks Elementary - the Wilson school that would absorb Ransomville's students. That followed with arguments from Stevenson and district administrators on why the school should remain open, and then arguments from Ransomville residents.
Wilson administrator Mark Rampado stated that the district feels Thomas Marks Elementary is more than sufficient to handle an increased student enrollment should Stevenson close and its students be moved there. He said that, currently, 242 students attend Stevenson and the building has a student capacity of 690. Thomas Marks Elementary has 300 students attending and a capacity of 1,020. Building size, the number of classrooms and available facilities options also favored Thomas Marks Elementary, said Rampado, telling attendees, "This building could easily handle such a transfer," adding he felt students would be absorbed without any major problems.
That view was not totally shared however, as administrators Michael Cancilla and John Diodate, discussing elementary consolidation/preservation, and Daniel Johnson/Phil Incorvaia on middle/high school consolidation, went on to speak of significant impacts to students should the closing and other consolidation efforts occur. Noted were the uncertainties seen in predicting enrollment and the hiring of instructors; and fears in reductions of courses and the elimination of non-mandated courses for students. "It could all be done, but it would come at a significant cost to students," said Incorvaia.
Administrator Jeff Roth expanded on this further when it came to the impact on the district's co-curriculars, which he described as "essential part of school programs." Roth said that eliminating sports for example, would be "cutting an opportunity ... for kids, the community to be involved."
Roth spoke of other extras - music programs, bands, etc. - and the impact that such community-involved activities would have on students. "It (the lack of availability) would handcuff students later on," said Roth, telling members such a lack of programs could impact a student's chances on entering a college.
Wilson Superintendent Dr. Mike Wendt faulted New York state for many of the district's financial woes, telling attendees he felt Wilson is a victim of the state's inequity on rural schools. Wendt criticized state education policies such as its inequity of STAR rebate formulas, and its focus on seeking to regionalize high schools in rural areas in an effort to save money. "The $17,000 per pupil cost in Wilson is much less than those in Nassau," said Wendt, adding the state might want to consider a cap on cost per pupil expenditures.
Wendt's remarks, coupled with those of the previous speakers, seemed to fuel the fire of residents who then came up to speak. Over an hour's time virtually all came out in opposition to the district's plan. Some responses:
•"This whole thing is very passionate," said resident Debbie Parker, Ransomville resident and chair of the Town of Porter Recreation Commission. Parker commented that "students have an academic advantage in smaller schools" and that the loss of Stevenson would not only be a negative to students, but also to Ransomville through the loss of vital community programs. She closed by presenting the board a petition bearing the names of 583 residents opposed to the Stevenson closing.
•Kathy Zasucha, Porter Recreation director, commented that the loss of Stevenson would impact the town's recreation programs, and that physical education offerings for the district "would suffer."
•Resident Sue Sherwood of Baer Road questioned how the closing would help resolve the district's $3.5 million budget woes. "What will come next? It's a Band-Aid approach," said Sherwood. The resident went on to raise issue on "the socio-economic impacts" such a move would have on Ransomville.
•Parker Road resident Dan Seider, one of the parent volunteers in a group formed to prevent Stevenson from closing, argued a number of points to board members. Mentioned was the fact Royalton-Hartland, a district similar to Wilson, was able to keep its two schools open in different communities; and that St. John Lutheran in Wheatfield, through innovations, was actually able to increase enrollment and achieve success. "They were able to do it ... there's no benefit to kids on what you're trying to do here," said Parker. The resident went on to question why Wilson couldn't address the Stevenson financial issue by means of tapping into its $2 million available fund balance, noting the district manages a $23 million budget.
Throughout the comment period, resident after resident spoke in favor of maintaining what the community has with Stevenson.
•"Why is this wonderful school being shut down?," asked Niagara Falls resident and Wilson alumni Dara Johannes-House.
•"It's a difficult decision that will affect our kids," said Lake Road resident Mary Beth Carroll. "Find other ways to cut."
Wendt and the Wilson School Board will consider these comments plus others while searching for other options as the district continues to weigh consolidation and its other financial issues. The district will likely be discussing Stevenson at its Nov. 13 BOE meeting, also taking place at the Ransomville school, and in future sessions as an anticipated March 2013 decision date nears.