New Lebanon Elementary School – Overcrowding draws parent ire over busing option

Facing questions and anger from parents, the school district is working to find a solution to overcrowded classrooms at New Lebanon Elementary School.

The school, which has implemented an international baccalaureate (IB) program as a magnet school to try to counter an already existing racial balance issue, is now facing a projected overflow of two classrooms worth of students for the 2013-14 school year beginning in September. With not enough space at the school, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie told parents at a New Lebanon School PTA meeting on May 1 that options being considered included utilizing the swing space in the cafeteria and media room, having modular classrooms on site, and leasing space from a nearby church.

But one of those options, busing fifth grade students to Western Middle School, is one to which parents have expressed strong objections. At last week’s meeting, parents demanded it be taken off the table, and in an interview with the Post, PTA President Michael Bocchino said that the school community is “100% united against it.”

“You’ll have fifth graders who are not emotionally or educationally ready for the experience of being in a middle school,” Mr. Bocchino said. “At New Lebanon we have a motto we’ve embraced as ‘One community, one school,’ and doing this would make it ‘One community, two schools.’ Taking the kids out of the school for what really is their ‘senior year’ in elementary school means they will miss out on a lot of the experiences they really look forward to. They won’t be able to be the safety patrol monitors or be in charge of the hallways. They won’t have a chance to be leaders and mentors to the new kids coming in, and that’s unfair.”

Mr. Bocchino said there are also concerns about the difficulty of getting kids back to New Lebanon for school assemblies and celebrations, and families want their older children there closer to their siblings instead of having them sent to different schools. He said after the total opposition from the community to this option there is disappointment it hasn’t been ruled out yet.

“To me that says it’s an option [Dr. McKersie] favors,” Mr. Bocchino said.

Another unpopular option is a similar one that would keep kindergarten through third grade in the existing building and move fourth and fifth grades to a “partner school.”

But while Dr. McKersie said the busing option is not being taken off the table, he stressed that it is not true that it is considered a favored option, and he said no decisions have been made.

“All options are being seriously considered,” Dr. McKersie told the Post this week. “Any report that we are leaning toward any option is simply inaccurate.”

He added that he wanted to “respect the process” and not just take off one unpopular option right away. He said all ideas were going to be considered equally to see which one made the most sense. One thing that he said the district does not want to do is raise class size guidelines to accommodate the students.

“We do know that New Lebanon is a crowded school and the classrooms are small,” Dr. McKersie said. “But we want to be able to keep them within the classroom size guidelines so we don’t impact the educational experience of the children.”

Of all the options, the one Mr. Bocchino said he liked best was one that would build new administration space at the school, allowing the existing offices to be used as classroom space for the additional students and having the office up by the front of the school, which he said would have the extra benefit of increasing security. He estimated the cost of this to be $400,000, a number that is backed up by the district.

Dr. McKersie offered some reservations about Mr. Bocchino’s idea, which is on the list of options being considered, calling the proposed cost for this a “significant capital expense.” He noted there would be several factors to consider before an expense like that would be approved, including the state-mandated solution to both New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue schools being out of racial balance. Dr. McKersie said that district consultants tasked with developing potential solutions are expected to report back May 23, allowing the Board of Education to begin a process that will lead to a vote in the fall.

With some members of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation calling for increased scrutiny of school spending, Dr. McKersie said, there could be issues with committing major dollars to a solution for this fall when it was unclear, as of right now, what solution will have to be adopted to bring the schools into racial balance, which could either require something less expensive than this idea or more expensive.

“This is painful for New Lebanon, and I understand it,” Dr. McKersie said. “But we have to take a long-term look at New Lebanon in the right way.”

Without a full plan in place, Dr. McKersie said, it would be difficult to get into major solutions like that. He acknowledged that this put the school in a “tough spot” but pledged that the district would do everything it could to work with the school and the parents.

Mr. Bocchino said he understood there are going to be future changes to deal with racial imbalance and that his favored option “hasn’t been budgeted yet” and that it could be an issue, but he feels the money is there to do it.

“Surely the district has money for something like this in an emergency fund, and if it doesn’t there is money that can be used within the town government,” Mr. Bocchino said about the possible $400,000. “This is a drop in the bucket.”

To respond to racial balance guidelines, Mr. Bocchino said, he believes there will have to be redistricting, an option the district has not committed to, but even if that happens the overcrowding will have to be addressed.

“The population growth is too much and the school as initially built is not suitable for it,” Mr. Bocchino said. “We have had closets turned into instructional areas and classes being held on the stage.”

The New Lebanon PTA was scheduled to meet again Wednesday night, after the deadline for this week’s edition of the Greenwich Post. Mr. Bocchino said the goal of that meeting would be to break down into focus groups and consider the options being suggested so that one or two of them could be put forward to the town as ones the school favors over busing the fifth graders.

Dr. McKersie said the district is waiting for more information to come in, including about the enrollment trends. He said a follow-up meeting would be scheduled once that was in. He praised the willingness and cooperation of the New Lebanon administration and parents, singling out Mr. Bocchino as an “excellent leader and advocate for parents.” Dr. McKersie did stress, though, that parental input, while wanted, was “advisory” only. He said if there was a multi-school decision it would come from his office and if it was one that just impacted New Lebanon it would come from the school’s principal, Barbara Riccio.

Mr. Bocchino returned the compliment to the superintendent, “I think Dr. McKersie has done a very admirable job in discussing this, especially when compared to prior superintendents. I’ve been trying to bring this to the attention of the superintendent’s office and the Board of Education for at least two years now, and there have been two budget cycles where money could have been allocated to be able to address this but nothing was done.”

While Dr. McKersie said this issue has been seen only over the past few weeks, Mr. Bocchino said it’s one the community has been raising far longer.

“We’ve been telling the board and the superintendent’s office for years now that this was on the horizon,” Mr. Bocchino said. “Now it’s biting them on the ass, and something has to be done.”

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