GLENS FALLS -- Faced with a financial dilemma and declining enrollment, the Glens Falls City School District board on Monday voted to close an elementary school - then chose Sanford Street Elementary as the building to be closed this summer.
The decisions were made during a special meeting at Glens Falls High School that was attended by approximately 200 residents. Some teared up after the vote was taken to close the Sanford Street school.
The board also voted to move fifth-grade students from each elementary school to the middle school for classes beginning in September.
Monday's votes to close a school and move the fifth-graders to the middle school were unanimous. Board member Jennifer Hogan cast the only vote against closing the Sanford Street school, and board member Shirley Berger was absent.
While the board has discussed a school closure for a year, it was in recent weeks that board members signaled changes were needed in response to reductions in enrollment and financial challenges that are expected to linger for a few more years.
The board heard strong opposition from parents and teachers but was resistant to the criticism, making it appear inevitable that a school would close. But which school would be closed remained a mystery until Monday's meeting.
Thomas McGowan, superintendent of schools, recommended closing an elementary school and moving the fifth-graders to the middle school. Then he recommended closing Sanford Street, which instantly drew a sigh of shock from the audience.
Residents remained silent as the board went on to approve the recommendations.
"This has been a truly excruciating process to go through. This is something that is not easy for anyone," McGowan said as he made his recommendations.
McGowan said Sanford Street was chosen because it requires moving students from only one building. Due to the locations of the other schools, their closure would have affected students from more than one school.
In addition, Sanford Street is located in the center of the city. Closing the building maintains the district's neighborhood school concept as much as possible, and it keeps students within one mile of their schools, McGowan said.
Glens Falls is a walking district, but it would have to transport elementary school students who live more than a mile from their respective schools.
In the fall, the district formed a committee of volunteers to study the elementary schools and come up with suggestions for the board. The group found that closing a school was a viable option, saving approximately $403,000 a year. The bulk of the savings will come from a reduction in staff.
The board reviewed the committee's findings and heard public feedback over the course of several meetings, including two community forums conducted last week solely for discussions about closing a school.
Much of the feedback during those meetings was in opposition to closing a school. People feared it would reduce property values near the building that shut down. They said it would lead to bigger class sizes, could hurt academic programs and might chase away prospective young families looking to buy a home in the city.
Some people also said closing a school was not worth the money it saved. Others said they were willing to pay more taxes if it meant keeping all four elementary schools open.
But residents also said taxes are too high in the district, and that raising them any more would force some to sell their homes.
School officials said they expect the financial problems to last beyond the 2011-12 budget year.
The district faces a budget gap of nearly $1.3 million next year. Even by closing a school, another $900,000 in reductions will be necessary to balance the budget while raising the tax levy by no more than 2 percent.
The board picked 2 percent as a tax-boost ceiling, a move that prepares the district for a cap that's coming for the 2012-13 budget year.
A year from now, when the board works on the 2012-13 budget, the district will be short $900,000 from a federal fund that is scheduled to dry up. There's also fear that the state won't be able to increase funding for education by 2012-13.
Meanwhile, the district has 600 students fewer today than it did in 1995. Since the city has little space for development, school officials are skeptical that enrollment will begin to increase anytime soon.
"I'm convinced the right thing to do is close a school," said board member Jennifer Hogan.
When the meeting ended, people exchanged hugs with others who were crying.
Denise Nolan, a Sanford Street teacher for nearly 19 years, said she was surprised her building was picked.
"We are the largest (elementary) school in the district. We were caught off guard," she said. "The kids will be fine, but it's a tragic loss for the community."
McGowan said the school closure requires eliminating positions, but those cuts will come from across the district instead of solely from Sanford Street. The reductions will be based on seniority.
In addition, the district will spend weeks determining how to change the boundaries for each elementary school. The district is inviting parents and teachers to provide feedback on the transition to three elementary school buildings.
McGowan said the board has not decided what to do with the Sanford Street building, but he expects the board will keep it.
He said BOCES and private educational institutions have shown interest in renting the space.
By closing one building, the district will have three schools with students in kindergarten to fourth-grade. One building will house prekindergarten students, McGowan said.