Some parents at last week’s school board meeting received some shocking news: their children’s school might close.
In a presentation to Liverpool’s board of education Monday Sept. 25, Castallo and Silky Consultants illustrated the results of the reconfiguration study they had been working on with the district for the last year. In an attempt to improve middle school education in Liverpool, the district commissioned the study last summer. Last week, the consultants made their recommendation to the board. Right now, Liverpool schools have kindergarten through sixth grade in the elementary schools and seventh and eighth in middle. The consultants recommended changing to kindergarten through fifth at the elementary level and sixth through eighth at the middle schools. Both Chestnut Hill Middle and Soule Road Middle already have the capacity to house sixth graders. Liverpool Middle does not. Thus, the consultants recommended closing Liverpool Elementary and turning it into a middle school annex.
“I was just flabbergasted,” said Terri Cook, an LE parent and former Liverpool school board member. “I had sat in on at least half of the advisory board meetings and I had been with the board when we began this process, but I was not expecting this to be their recommendation.”
Cook described the process by which the consultants decided to close LE. Given that LMS was not large enough as it stands to hold sixth as well as seventh and eighth graders, two options were available. Either a nine-room addition could be constructed onto LMS or one of the elementary schools that fed into it would have to be closed and turned into a middle school. Deeming the addition too expensive, the consultants opted for closing an elementary school.
The consultants then looked at the five schools that feed into LMS: LE, Elmcrest. Long Branch, Wetzel and Morgan. LBE has just finished renovations as an elementary school, so it was ruled out. Next to go was EE, which has a small cafeteria, limited field availability and no access to a major highway. Between WRE and MRE, WRE was eliminated because MRE has larger classrooms and is close to seven other schools that its kids could go to.
Morgan Road, however, has the largest number of elementary school students in the district, while LE has the smallest. Morgan is also much farther from LMS, making for significant travel time for shared staff. At LE, if a connective corridor was constructed between LE and LMS, travel time would be cut, the least construction would be necessary and it would dovetail with the district architect’s five-year renovation plan for the district (LE and LMS are scheduled to go to referendum for renovations next year). Thus, it was determined that Liverpool Elementary should be the school to close.
The consultants then outlined the plan to move current LE students to their new schools (they will be divided between Elmcrest and Long Branch). Next year, all students but kindergarteners would return to LE. Kindergarteners will start at their new school. The following year, only second through sixth grade would attend LE. The process would continue until 2010, when only fourth, fifth and sixth graders would be at LE and the school would be considered a middle school. After that, sixth graders would remain in the new LMS annex and all other elementary students would attend other schools.
“If this is approved, this year’s kindergarten class would be the last class to go all the way through the school,” Cook said. “There would be no more new kids after this year.”
School board meeting place changed
The school board still has to vote on the recommendation, but not until after it hears from the public. A special meeting of the board will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday Oct. 5. Due to the expected turnout for the meeting, Superintendent Jan Matousek has moved it from the district offices at Craven Crawford to the auditorium at Chestnut Hill Middle School.
“The board as a whole is trying to remain open to all possibilities,” said board President Mark Lawson. “There is a feeling that we need a reconfiguration. We will likely accept the recommendation that we go to a 6 to 8 model for the middle schools.”
That does not mean that the board already has its mind made up concerning LE.
“We understand why the proposal is upsetting,” Lawson said. “We want to hear from people. I just hope folks will be mindful of the educational impact of this and not just their emotional feelings.”
Lawson noted that the plan was not to completely close the school, but to phase out the elementary school and turn it into part of the middle school.
“There would still be a school presence in the village,” he said.
The board is expected to vote on the matter at its Oct. 23 meeting.
LE parents, led by Cook and her husband, are spearheading a publicity campaign to get as many people to the Oct. 5 meeting as possible.
“We’re going through Herculean efforts to make sure people hear about it,” Cook said. “This is our only opportunity to make ourselves heard.”
In an effort to publicize the study’s results and to organize a response, Cook held a meeting Monday Oct. 2 at the Liverpool Methodist Church. At least a hundred people attended the meeting. No board members were among them, despite being invited; the only administrator present was LE Principal William Mugridge.
“The board can’t make a decision based on a subset of the community that is emotional and upset,” Cook said. “We need to take time to digest this information and to respond effectively.”
Cook and others at the meeting presented some very effective arguments as to why LE should not be closed. First and foremost, it is, as most of the schools in the district are, a community school. It has the highest number of walkers in the district.
LE’s closing would also affect all other district schools. First, the populations of displaced students have to go somewhere, thus affecting the enrollment and class size at the schools they would then attend. Second, the availability of services, especially for special needs students, could push those students to schools as far away as Willow Field.
The programs available at LE because of its small size would be lost, as well.
“We have so many extracurricular opportunities because we’re such a small school,” Cook pointed out. “Kids can find something no matter what their interests and strengths. As the school shrinks, how many of those opportunities will still be available?”
Finally and most importantly, the poverty rate at LE is the highest in the district. It has jumped 105.4 percent in the last three years, more than any other school in Liverpool. Poverty rate is determined by the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch. Those students are most likely to be at risk for low test scores and poor academic performance. However, given the size of LE, classes are kept small, allowing teachers to address the needs of struggling students.
“The district has been paying consultants to help them deal with the needs of poor students,” Cook also said. “If they go through with the closing, they’re ignoring all of that work and money spent.”
The parents and community members at the meeting did present alternatives if the district decided to go ahead with the reconfiguration, alternatives that would keep LE open. Parent Teacher Organization Vice President Karen Robineau noted that the consultants revealed that the cost of the nine-room addition to LMS would cost $3 million, while the cost of changing two rooms at LE to accommodate middle schoolers would cost approximately $725,000. They had not gotten any estimates for the construction of the connective corridor. Meeting attendants felt strongly that the district should consider this alternative.
Cook also showed those at the meeting the consultants’ enrollment projections, which revealed that, by 2012, LMS’ enrollment would have declined to the point that they could have the capacity for the sixth graders without closing any schools. The transition to the new program would not be complete until after 2010. Thus, parents asked, why not wait just two more years?
These questions and more will be asked at the board meeting Thursday night. For more information, visit geocities.com/lpoolresponse.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.