New Lebanon to add teachers to meet overcrowding

p1-New-Lebanon-5-30With a space crunch apparently headed their way, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie had to tell parents at New Lebanon School last week that an expanded building is not possible at this time. However, additional teachers are on the way.

At a special PTA meeting on May 22, Dr. McKersie met with parents and members of the faculty at the school, which is projected to have a two-classroom overcrowding problem for the 2013-14 school. While Dr. McKersie was able to assure parents that the deeply unpopular option of busing New Lebanon’s fifth graders to Western Middle School remained off the table, they were disappointed that a capital project to expand the school could not happen at this time.

Instead, Dr. McKersie outlined an option that would see two new teachers hired to allow for all the students to remain in the current building. The teachers would be added to the second and third grades so that if the class size goes above the top guideline, those teachers could be used to work in tandem with the larger-than-standard classes to make sure the students get the individual attention they need.

“We would begin the search process right away so when we hit that point of going over we know we have a teacher for you,” Dr. McKersie said. “If we wait to start looking until you go over in the summer, then we may not be able to have a high-quality teacher. If we begin looking now, there’s a very good chance we will have a very, very good teacher to round out the second grade team and the third grade team.”

Dr. McKersie said how those teachers would specifically be deployed would be at the discretion of the principal.

There was some frustration evident over this plan. Parents have favored solutions giving the school more space. At a May 15 meeting, parents urged the district to make a long-term renovation plan for New Lebanon School a priority while also budgeting for a short-term capital solution to create more room.

But two things were working against that, according to Dr. McKersie and Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, who also attended the meeting with board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill. The first is the current budget climate in town and needing approvals from the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). The other is the possibility of a townwide redistricting plan to racially balance New Lebanon while also addressing space utilization issues at the other elementary schools (see related story on page one).

“Any capital changes right now are not possible given how the town runs its capital budgets,” Dr. McKersie said. “We are not able to go through the process in any kind of time for this coming year.”

He did add that a capital project for the school would have to be looked at for the long term but a lot would depend on what happens with the space utilization solution in the district. A storage shed for the school to allow for space to be opened up inside is in the budget for this coming year.

There was also a call from some parents for residency verification of students stemming from continued allegations of residents of Port Chester, N.Y., registering children at New Lebanon School, which is right across the border.

Dr. McKersie said that complaints about residency are handled by the district on a case-by-case basis across the district and that he didn’t feel a full check of all the students was warranted. He said complaints about 29 vehicles observed dropping off students at New Lebanon with New York plates on the cars has been looked into and all 29 students were found to be valid and living in rented properties in town.

“I would not want to put this community through a 100% check of each of you as to your residency status,” Dr. McKersie said. “I do not want to do that because of what we have been doing and what we are prepared to keep doing if people give us specific complaints. We will chase those down. Putting a whole community through a check on residency would be counterproductive. We might end up with nobody, and even if we end up with one or two, it’s not going to change the situation. I don’t want to create scrutiny in a community that’s trying to come together, be celebratory and be unified.”

Dr. McKersie also said he could not, at this time, support a cap on enrollment at the school that would prevent new students from coming in.

“In a neighborhood school, to turn people away is like saying, ‘We’re in and you’re not,’” Dr. McKersie said.

One parent who spoke in favor of this was Jessica von Brachel, who said she did not want to do anything to hurt the community, but that this was something worth exploring.

“If we’re talking about solutions to racial balance and changing the boundaries of our neighborhood anyway next year, I guess that I feel that penalizing our current students and faculty for someone coming in mid-year doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially in a district where we have magnet options and can offer them a seat at a magnet school,” Ms. von Brachel said. “I don’t want to exclude anyone, but if it’s at the expense of students already here, I question the educational value.”

Dr. McKersie did leave the door open to the idea, saying that it might be reopened in the coming months, but that he found the message it sent “problematic.” He was pressed by parents to make sure that there were contingency plans in place and pledged there would be.

Parents continued to express happiness that the idea of busing fifth graders to the middle school is no longer being considered. Dr. McKersie said he had talked about the idea with Western’s soon-to-be principal, Gordon Beinstein, about it and found some of the same reluctance there was at New Lebanon.

“He gave me exactly what I need from a principal,” Dr. McKersie said. “He told me, ‘Bill, I will be a team player. However, fifth grade is not the time to be at Western Middle School.’ That’s a great middle school that does great work. When your children get there they’re going to be in a great school with great, great support. But he told me it’s just not right to have a fifth grade there. He said he would do it if he had to, but he gave me great reasons around the age and maturation and development about fifth graders and told me why it wouldn’t be right.”

Dr. McKersie reported that Mr. Beinstein gave several of the same reasons New Lebanon parents had, including noting that the move would take away the fifth graders’ chance to be “in charge” of the school through positions of responsibility traditionally given to the oldest kids in the school. He said all of these responses made it “I dare say, an easy decision.”

RTM District 4 members Robert McKnight and Samarpana Tamm also attended the meeting to be briefed on what was happening with the school, which is in the district. Mr. McKnight, chairman of District 4, told the Post that the community was grateful that Dr. McKersie had listened and respected their wish not to bus the students to Western, a sentiment echoed by PTA Chairman Michael Bocchino, who is also chairman of the Byram Neighborhood Association.

“We are so fortunate now that we have a superintendent that listens to the parents and understands their concerns and is strong enough to take an option like moving our kids to Western Middle School off the table,” Mr. Bocchino said.


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