Accelify Blog

Lockport District Prepares to Downsize

March 1, 2010

LOCKPORT — When Robert Leiser, a father of two children at DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, stood up before the Lockport School Board, rumors had been swirling for a week.

He was full of questions: Is De- Witt Clinton closing? Why does a school have to close at all? What happens next? What can parents do?

“I’m just trying to understand what’s going on,” he said, helplessly, during a public meeting earlier this month.

The answers probably weren’t what he wanted to hear.

Faced with dropping enrollment and deep cuts in funding, the Lockport School District is confronting the worst: closing one school, possibly two, for good.

One closing would send at least 220 students to new schools; two closings could move more than 500.

“Nothing is strictly money,“ board President Marietta L. Schrader told Leiser. “It’s not just a building. If we didn’t have to do this, it would not be done. There’s just no other way.”

District officials say no decision has been made as to which schools will close, but at least one must close by September.

State budget proposals call for the district to lose $3.9 million in funding. Inflationary costs add another $4 million for rollover operations, leaving the district with a $7.9 million budget hole.

Schrader and Superintendent Terry Ann Carbone have told The Buffalo News that closing candidates include DeWitt Clinton, John E. Pound and Washington Hunt elementary schools. The three are the district’s oldest and most technologically outdated, and they cost the most to maintain.

“We have to look at the cost savings for each,” Carbone said of making the decision. “If we have to close more than one, do we do it over two years or one year? Which schools would be best for repurposing and for alternate programs?”

One school closing could save $500,000 to $900,000 in operations and staffing costs. The board is eyeing 23 staff cuts, some tied to school closings, but that number isn’t final.

District leaders have urged parents to contact elected officials as their only hope to scrounge for more state aid and prevent cuts. But the

budget picture in Albany is exceptionally grim, and officials warn that educators shouldn’t count on any extra funding.

Lockport isn’t alone. North Tonawanda may close an elementary school and a building used for alternative programs. The City of Tonawanda will close all of its neighborhood elementary schools and move to a single-campus model. It’s the combination of low enrollment and a harsh economy that is pushing districts to make decisions long avoided.

In Lockport, closing a school has been a discussion for at least a decade, Carbone said.

The district’s incoming kindergarten class this year was about 30 students below previous years, the superintendent said. Still, the district had always been able to afford keeping all of its seven elementary schools open and offer lower class sizes.

A $7.9 million deficit changes that.

“We’re forced to move from optimal class sizes to possibly less than desirable class sizes,” Carbone said.

Most elementary schools throughout Niagara County have about 20 students in an average class. For the 2008-09 school year, according to state records, DeWitt Clinton had 18, while John E. Pound and Washington Hunt had 19 each.

The schools that stay open could be affected, too. Roy Kelley Elementary, for instance, has an average class size of 17, which could go up if it absorbs students from a closed school.

Consolidation plans aren’t final but would not involve major redistricting, Carbone said. Students at open schools should stay with their same home school. Students from a closed school would attend the nearest school, and neighborhoods would be moved together so there are no splits in communities.

Although selling the closed school building would be ideal, it’s unlikely the district will find a buyer anytime soon, Carbone said. Instead, the buildings can be repurposed and create space for other district services, such as records management and technology storage.

District officials are reviewing budget scenarios and data to make a final determination. The future should look clearer by the board’s next meetings, Wednesday and March 10. A final budget, along with a closure plan, must be approved by April.