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Cary Brunswick

March 27, 2012

As Center Street Elementary goes, so goes Center City

The Oneonta school board is considering balancing its budget for next year on the backs of the Center City and its residents, especially parents and young children.

This is not the first time a school board has considered closing Center Street Elementary, and it would be best if the latest proposal met the same fate as previous attempts. In the past, a combination of Center City protest and finding fairer ways of balancing spending and taxes squashed school-closing plans.

According to school administrators, the proposal was drafted as a way to offset an anticipated $1.4 million cut in state aid, though the pain of that figure could be lessened when lawmakers adopt a new budget in the coming weeks.

Closing Center Street School, officials say, would save about $1 million through class consolidation at the three remaining elementary schools after an estimated 10 educator jobs are eliminated.

The alternative, they say, would be a possible 10 percent hike in the tax levy, which no one wants to propose and few want to pay. Except perhaps those Center City residents who recognize the importance of the school for their children, their property values and the genuine identity it offers for the area's neighborhoods.

But surely there must be other alternatives, and at least one that would permit the school to stay open with a tax hike more palatable than 10 percent. No doubt, with a declining enrollment, perhaps some educator positions should be cut, though the district in recent years already has responded to lower aid levels by slashing instructional staff by about 10 percent.

But why do we never hear anything about eliminating administrative staff?

The Oneonta district has six school buildings and six principals making a total of about $550,000 annually. Perhaps we don't need a principal in each elementary school. Maybe two principals each could take on two schools. That could save at least $160,000.

Maybe the principal making about $125,000 a year could be encouraged to retire. That would translate into a savings.

You hate to see a state aid shortfall result in decisions that will permanently affect the children, the parents and the Center City community in a negative way.

Are we really willing to shut down a school and bus young children across town, creating larger class sizes, while moving administrative offices to a school building where we've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade and modernize in recent years.

But I suppose I'm biased about the value of the Center Street School. My wife, Susan, taught there for about 25 years, and our two daughters both attended the school, but because of that I do have some idea of the school's importance to the families of the Center City.

Even for families without children, the building has always been like a community center, whether for school-sponsored activities or for general neighborhood meetings. For example, Common Council Member Michael Lynch has had regular Fourth Ward meetings at the school since he was elected.

Lynch, a Center City native who is active in organizing opposition to the school closing, has stressed the importance of the facility for nearby neighborhoods.

"Center Street is the anchor social institution of the Center City," he has stated. "Our property values are tied to this school as is the future of the Center City. For over a century, Center Street School has provided a top-notch education for our children. The school provides a meaningful incentive for families rather than slumlords to invest in our neighborhood."

The city has been studying ways to curtail the growth in student and other rental housing in the Center City. A sub-committee that resulted from a summit on housing issues last month has been looking into the need for more owner-occupied homes in Center City wards.

Mayor Richard Miller said earlier this week that "we had hoped to make Center City more attractive to a young family," while acknowledging that closing the school would be a setback.

Parents and neighbors have established a Facebook page called Support Oneonta Schools to help prevent such a setback.

Of course, there is always a chance that state lawmakers can find ways to boost state aid to schools.

That would be the easiest path away from the school-closing issue. Barring that, district leaders and board members need to evaluate the other options.

Is retiring school Superintendent Michael Shea really willing to let his legacy be closing the school he once attended?

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a retired Daily Star managing editor and a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

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