New Lebanon kindergarten shift reluctantly accepted

To try to reduce the space crunch that continues to hamstring New Lebanon School, kindergartners in the 2014-15 school year will be spending half their day at the nearby Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center (BANC).

The decision, made by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, will involve moving only kindergartners, and parents are urging the school district to make sure this is only a temporary solution and that plans proceed on the fast track for a new school building in Byram. Dr. McKersie announced the plan last Thursday, the day after a PTA meeting at New Lebanon School and the day of a Board of Education meeting there where it was on the agenda.

Under the plan, starting this fall, New Lebanon kindergartners will begin their day at BANC for their academic work and then be taken, via school bus, to the school for the rest of the day, which will include lunch, recess and classes like physical education, music and art. The classrooms that had been used for kindergarten instruction would then be used to accommodate all the students in other grades. Current projections for the 2014-15 school year have New Lebanon needing 16 classrooms, with only 14 available in the current building.

“This will free up three classrooms within this crowded school,” Dr. McKersie said. “It also then ensures any current kindergartner through fourth grader that this is your school next year. That’s because we know this community cares so much about children having that chance to be here K through five. While we figure out the long term, we want to have that happen.”

Parents did call for the chance to move their children to a kindergarten class at another school if they wanted, saying they did not want to leave the New Lebanon School community but at least wanted to have the alternative. In response, the board ended up unanimously urging Dr. McKersie to change the lottery rules, which have to be set by Feb. 28, so that New Lebanon students can be entered into it instead of being barred because they are already in a magnet school.

This is not the first time the district has attempted to move students in an attempt to free up space at the school. Last May, a plan to bus fifth graders from New Lebanon School to nearby Western Middle School did not go forward after strong outcry against the idea from parents saying it moved students to a middle school atmosphere before they were ready and was unfair to both the students and their families. New Lebanon’s space crunch has also hamstrung its ability to serve as a magnet school, since it can’t bring in students from outside the neighborhood area. New Lebanon is one of two district elementary schools, along with Hamilton Avenue School, considered to be in racial imbalance by the state.

Concerns have been expressed about BANC given the condition of the building, which will need repair and improvement over the summer to prepare it for students. People also worried about the potential hazards of crossing Delavan Avenue to get to BANC during the school day, a lack of space for teachers, a lack of windows in the classrooms, and the fact that the school nurse will continue to be located at New Lebanon School and will go to BANC as needed.

At last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, parents largely accepted the kindergarten plan but said they wanted it to be only a temporary measure. Michael Boccino, president of the New Lebanon PTA and chairman of the Byram Neighborhood Association, said it had been a “complete failure” on the part of prior boards and prior superintendents to not move this forward earlier.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Mr. Boccino said. “We have no other alternative but to try and keep our kids associated with this school. That’s a heck of a bad position to be in. To have to send your kids for a half a day to another building and then bring them back up here to keep them connected to the school is horrible. If we had acted upon this three years ago when it was recognized and told to the board, we wouldn’t be in this situation or we might be breaking ground on a new school.”

Lucy VonBrachel added, “I realize there are no good options for the space issues for us in the short term. Every option is pretty horrible and BANC is probably better than any of those other alternatives. But while BANC is acceptable, it’s not a facility meant to house elementary school students and the displacement of our youngest children will definitely take a toll on all of us.”

Dr. McKersie repeated during the meeting that this is only a short-term plan and that it is separate from the ongoing long-term plan to create more space. He said the plan was the result of looking to “extend the campus into the community” and came after input from district administration and the police and fire departments.

“Last year when I was here discussing this, we could only talk the short term,” Dr. McKersie said. “Since then the board has moved the ball down the field toward long-term action here at New Lebanon. While this is a tight school, it’s obvious to me that this is a school where parents and families want to be and where children want to be. That’s why we took the fifth grade solution off the table last year and why we turned to BANC this year and brought them into the process.”

Money was authorized last year for an ongoing $25,000 feasibility study to determine options, but parents have said that money will only confirm what they already know. Speakers also urged that plans for a new school be moved onto the fast track through the town’s budgeting process.

“While this is not ideal, it is the best possible option we’ve been given,” Clare Kilgallen said. “However, the short-term solution must be just that, short. We need to keep the momentum going and study long-term plans now. We cannot wait another budget cycle or wait yet another year. I spoke about it last year about how we need to be shovel-ready this year. We cannot wait for other town capital projects before starting to implement New Lebanon’s long-term solution. We’re talking about basic, everyday educational space. This is not an enrichment, ‘nice to have’ situation. We don’t have enough space for educational space, a proper-sized cafeteria or a media center and a computer room.”

Ms. Kilgallen compared the town to an “absentee landlord” on the issue because “they’ve gladly collected taxes while turning a blind eye” to the need for a new, expanded school building. Ms. Kilgallen praised the board and Dr. McKersie for their steps, but said the town was not showing support through spending. This sentiment was also expressed by board member Adriana Ospina, who said during the meeting that people should bring their frustration to the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) at public hearings about the budget.

“In October, we voted unanimously on a motion to put forward an interim appropriation of $100,000 to have it for July 1 to work on this issue and the BET turned us down,” Ms. Ospina told parents. “The eight people at this table are with you. We want to get it done. It’s a priority for us. Unfortunately, we don’t control the whole process. … We have heard you and now they need to hear you.”

Results from the feasibility study will be discussed at the board’s meeting on March 20.

 

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