Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Question of Congers

The closing of the Congers Elementary School may finally be the catalyst for serious discussion among the leaders and residents of the Clarkstown Central School District (CCSD) about the physical infrastructure of its buildings.  One discussion will lead to the development of a plan that addresses the extensive, documented and long-known infrastructure needs throughout the district that have been ignored for years or, in some cases, decades.  The other discussion will lead simply to the permanent closing of Congers Elementary and the redistricting of nearly all the elementary students in the CCSD. 

There is no plan either way at the moment or, rather, there is no adopted plan.  Assistant Superintendent John LaNave, who oversees Business, Facilities and Fiscal Management for the CCSD, says he has lots of plans – just no funding.  The CCSD Board of Education (BoE) and the Administration have made it pretty clear that the seemingly sudden development at Congers caught them unprepared, but the situation in Congers was neither sudden nor surprising.  Many Clarkstown residents have been saying for years that the entire area of the gymnasium/auditorium combination was unsafe.  This was not because of any unusual circumstance or damage, but based solely upon its aged design and construction, which is exactly what the engineer’s report cited as their reasons for declaring the wall unsafe.

90 years of cracks and spackle so…yeah, probably.
All of the eighteen buildings in the CCSD have significant infrastructure deficiencies.  The CCSD’s two newest buildings are 41 years old, and one of those has never had a major alteration.  Congers Elementary hasn’t had one since 1970, and it is just the first building where these structural deficiencies have become undeniable.  Long-term issues, like infrastructure, require proactive thinking and planning to ensure that such investments are maintained and that the student are provided a safe environment for learning and development.  Yet for thirty years, the CCSD practice has been to largely to ignore long-term issues until they are forced to take reactive and costly half-measures to mitigate completely avoidable crises like, well, now.

Looking at the latest of these reactive mitigations, the CCSD Administration has divided the Congers students by grade and arranged their transportation to spaces within three other elementary schools.  Only a few days into a plan that itself was put together in a matter of days, Congers children seem to be adjusting to their new bus routes, class schedules and environments.  Still, many challenges and problems must be addressed.

The Congers kids now occupy space that was used by the host schools as resource areas that are now lost.  Many services, including Special Education, Music, Library and remedial learning, are as yet unscheduled, or have been combined to accommodate many more students, or have lost student time as teachers travel from one school to another.  Congers parents cannot be easily dismissed when they argue that this arrangement has shortchanged Congers, and their hosts, of many district services.  The Congers children are also arguably deprived of the activities, events and development that the community would normally provide in their local neighborhood school. 

Alternatively, many Congers parents believe that leasing St. Augustine’s School is a better solution, as this will place the children in one location.  This solution, however, is still a reactive mitigation that has its own problems.  There’s the small matter of there being no money in the budget to rent and equip a separate facility, and if the children are adjusting to their temporary environments, one must question the value of relocating them to another temporary site.  The District could spend less money more quickly to ensure that services are delivered under the current arrangements, which they seem to be working towards.  Then there are the proposed terms of the lease, which include that the premises must be vacated by the CCSD by 3:00 PM every day, which makes it no easier to engage community and extracurricular activities.  Finally, the physical limitations of the building – and placing 250 students in a space that last had less than half that – offer no space for resource rooms, no library, and a gym/cafeteria/stage combination.  This location could arguably make it more difficult to provide the students with the services they need.

Either way, these reactive mitigations must be short-term solutions until a permanent solution is found.  So, on the long term, proactive side, what is the plan?  The Superintendent, Dr. J. Thomas Morton, will not commit to…well…anything so far.  He seems to be content to allow Mr. LaNave – perhaps the one administrator in the CCSD who has sought funds every year for capital improvements – to take the heat from frustrated residents.  The BoE will not commit to repairing the school.  They have told the public that all options are on the table and they are waiting for numbers and, apparently, when they say “numbers”, they are not just talking dollars. At one point during the last meeting, Board President Mike Aglialoro began citing declining birth rates and enrollments throughout the CCSD since the 1980’s.  It was a pretty strong implication that closing this school permanently – and maybe more – may actually be the leading option.

Probably not the best time to bring that up…
For most residents in Congers, it is obvious that the school should be repaired – the only question is how.  In fairness to Mike, there are at least as many people throughout the CCSD who have argued for several years to close at least one elementary school, and they would likely believe this is an excellent opportunity.  It is just as obvious to these folks that closing one or two elementary schools makes sense.  Since Congers Elementary is one of the smaller schools in student population, it is certainly obvious that the situation at Congers is now less a safety issue and more an opportunity to close a school.

The current BoE, or a Superintendent on the job for just over a year, cannot be blamed for the infrastructure deficiencies at Congers Elementary and throughout the eighteen CCSD buildings.  This Board does have the opportunity to present a long-term solution for the entire District that is in line with the history, educational expectations and experiences that motivate people to move to and remain in Clarkstown.  The BoE is seeking direction and guidance from the community as they determine how they will address the deficiencies in Congers and the rest of the CCSD buildings.  It is time for residents to get their emotions in check and prepare for the hard choices and hard work ahead.