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Johnstown's thorny school issue
March 1, 2009 - Bill Ackerbauer
The following op-ed column appeared today in the print edition of The Sunday Leader-Herald:
By BILL ACKERBAUER
I have to hand it to the Greater Johnstown School District’s volunteer advisory committee on restructuring. Its members have a Herculean task before them: to seek a consensus about which of the district’s cherished school buildings must close in response to dwindling student enrollment.
On Thursday night, the committee faced a standing-room-only crowd at the lecture hall at Johnstown High School. The roughly 30 people who spoke did so passionately and thoughtfully, but I didn’t hear anything resembling a consensus about which school should close.
A few speakers suggested keeping all of the schools open in the interest of small class sizes, which research has (not surprisingly) linked to higher student achievement. My neighbor Chris Clizbe went so far as to say he would countenance a tax hike if it meant keeping all the schools open. (A few folks shook their heads at this, but Johnstown is a polite community, and no rotten tomatoes were tossed.) Personally, I tend to agree with him; like Chris, I am the parent of a child at Jansen Avenue, the school that seems to have the largest bull’s eye painted it on it.
Nonetheless, the committee has already agreed that keeping all six school buildings open would be impractical. If one elementary school does need to close, even if it is my son’s school, I could accept that outcome as long as the district lines are redrawn logically and fairly, preventing an arrangement in which one or two schools benefit and the remaining school suffers.
Several people spoke Thursday against closing Jansen, pointing out it recently earned distinction as a Blue Ribbon School. It would be a shame to lose the school’s excellent new principal, Colleen Lester.
Many people railed against the idea of moving students out of Jansen and turning that site into a central administration building and bus garage. That would seem financially counterproductive, and we don’t want the injury of diesel fumes added to the insult of having our neighborhood school closed.
It was reported elsewhere this week that a “rising chorus of voices” has said Knox Junior High School should close, but those voices were subdued at Thursday night’s forum.
Perhaps they stayed low-key out of respect for elder statesmen Art Batty and Bill Pollak, retired longtime educators who spoke in defense of the school.
They argued the brick building on the corner of North Perry Street and First Avenue is a Johnstown landmark and it remains functional. “It’s a fortress,” Batty joked. He said recent improvements to the 1930s-era structure have made the district’s oldest school building also its most energy-efficient.
Batty proposed making Knox a middle sch ool, expanding it to include grade six as well as grades seven and eight. This idea was seconded by several in the audience, and I agree it deserves further consideration.
Pollak argued that shuttering Knox merely because it is old makes no more sense than closing the White House and moving President Obama into a trailer. He pointed out that Union College still uses buildings that date back to 1814.
These observations drew some laughs, but that private college in Schenectady (my alma mater) enjoys steady enrollment and a healthy endowment; the White House hasn’t suffered from low occupancy since the Civil War, when Mr. Pollak was a schoolboy.
Of all the views expressed Thursday night, it seemed to me one was echoed by several speakers and not disputed by others: The district should not rush to a decision.
Garth Hillier and others suggested the district should hire an objective consultant who has expertise in school consolidation. The advisory committee shouldn’t be pressured to make a long-term recommendation based on short-term projections, they said.
More information and more time for consideration would contribute to a better decision.
District officials have set a timeline calling for a final recommendation from the committee by March 10, so the Board of Education can take it under advisement and make a final decision in time for the May budget vote.
If enough senior teachers agree to take the retirement incentives recently offered, those savings and our share of the federal stimulus bonanza could provide the district a temporary reprieve -- precious time to consider all the facets of this complicated situation.
Perhaps an outside consultant could gather more data and help the district arrive at the best solution, “setting all emotion aside,” as one resident suggested Thursday. I’d rather see Johnstown work this out as a community, no matter how thorny our disagreements. Cold calculation is appropriate for military campaigns and corporate marketing, not for the education of a tight-knit, caring community’s children.
Not a single speaker Thursday mentioned cutting sports or other extra-curricular programs. I’m not going to be the bad guy who suggests we ax the lacrosse team or the jazz band, but shouldn’t we talk about that before we talk about firing teachers and mothballing classrooms?
Considering how much we love our sports here in Johnstown, I suggest we settle this dilemma in a sportsmanlike fashion: Each of the four elementary schools should field a team of athletes, and the loser of a round-robin dodgeball tournament will be the school that closes. Dodge the dodgeball, dodge the mothballs. Simple.
All kidding aside, the entire community is anxious to hear what the restructuring committee will say when it reconvenes at 6 p.m. Monday in the JHS cafeteria. I’m sure no one is more anxious for a resolution than the volunteers on that committee.
Bill Ackerbauer is the assistant city editor of The Leader-Herald.
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