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School Board Looks at Closing Two Schools

To Close or Not to Close Schools?

The problem for the Mineola School District is one of simple economics — revenues are decreasing while expenses are increasing. The Mineola School Board was presented last week with an option to continue all of the programs the district offers while putting forth budgets for the next three years administrators feel the community can afford. That option, though, involves closing two of the district’s seven schools.

The reality facing the school district is that expenditures are increasing due mostly to contracted salary and benefit increases for staff members. However, revenues aren’t expected to increase since school aid from New York State is expected to decline and school districts will not be receiving monies from the federal government after the 2010-2011 school year.

Mineola Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Nagler gave a presentation on Thursday night on the economic reality facing the school district. Dr. Nagler put it simply when he said if the goal is to keep the district’s current educational program, then “we either pay for it or we look to close two buildings.”

In order to get a tax levy increase of 2.5 percent over the next three budgets (in 2010-2011, 2011-2012 and 2012-2013), the district would have to cut $8 million from the budget over the next three years ($2.4 million in 2010-2011, $3.1 in 2011-2012 and $2.5 million in 2012-2013) to keep the current educational program. The administration set 2.5 percent tax levy increase as a potential goal since it is an increase the community may be able to afford during difficult economic times. The tax levy increase for the 2009-2010 budget was 2.45 percent and it was passed by a sizable margin by district voters.

A cut of $8 million over the next three years would mostly come from personnel since those costs account for most of the budget. In the scenario in which the board of education would adopt budgets with a 2.5 percent tax levy increase over the next three years, it is projected that the district would have to lay off or excess seven teachers each year for the next three years, two administrators each year during that time span and multiple aides, while also making cuts to the school district’s clubs and then its sports program in 2011-2012.

Dr. Nagler explained that programs and personnel is going to get cut if the district keeps all seven of its school buildings open. “There’s no way around it,” he said, adding that significant personnel cuts would affect the district’s educational program.

However, Dr. Nagler did present a plan he feels will enable the district to keep all of its current programs while putting forth affordable budgets for the community. That plan involves closing two of the district’s elementary schools, most likely from Hampton, Cross and Meadow.

In the plan, the district would do away with its current “neighborhood school” system and employ a “clustering school” system. In the plan, the Willis Avenue School would continue to serve pre-kindergarten and kindergarten; Mineola Middle School would continue to serve sixth, seventh and eighth grades and Mineola High School would continue to serve ninth through 12th grades. However, one school (either Meadow, Cross and Hampton) would be used for first and second grades while another school (most likely Jackson) would be used for third, fourth and fifth grades.

In the closing two schools scenario, one school would be closed for the 2011-2012 year while the other school would be closed for the 2012-2013 school year. In this scenario, staff would also be reduced to the tune of 10 teachers per school closing. However, Dr. Nagler explained that with two less schools, less staff would be needed.

There is a wrinkle in the plan, however. In order for the two elementary schools that would be kept open to handle multiple grades from all areas in the district, there would have to be additions built on to both, so the district would need to spend money on construction in order to ultimately save money. Dr. Nagler proposes building up a capital reserve in the budget in order to pay for the work. “I know this isn’t the perfect solution. I don’t know what is,” he said.

When it came time for the public comment portion of the meeting, one resident, Patricia Whitlock of Albertson, defended the neighborhood school model, expressing concern that numerous transitions for the students may have a negative impact on their education. If the district were to close two schools, each of the students would have to go to all five schools in the district during their academic careers and change schools four times.

Another resident, Mary Willis of Williston Park, lauded the “clustering schools” model. One of the reasons she said is that the students in the district all get to know each other because they will all go to the same school. She felt that when it came time to go to the middle school together, there would be less anxiety for the students.

Dr. Nagler acknowledged that many parents love the neighborhood school model but said he doesn’t know how to keep all the schools open and present budgets over the next three years that the community can afford without negatively affecting the educational program the district delivers. He did explain that closing schools would allow the district to keep its programs.

Dr. Nagler said he needs direction from the board of education on whether to proceed with a plan to close schools by engaging the community on the idea. Although no school would close before September 2011, the district needs to start building a capital reserve into the budget to pay for the construction work on the two elementary schools that would remain open.

The next school board meeting will be Thursday, Feb. 4.