For the past couple of months, the Onteora School District has
been holding a series of public meetings at which a group of
hired architectural and planning consultants have been discussing
the sprawling district’s demographics, the state of its
current facilities, its mandated needs, and the various directions
it could take from here vis a vis its future. The events have
been well-publicized, via the local media and announcements
sent home with students, and have been held in all of the five
school facilities that service the district. The idea behind
the whole exercise has been to get the community (or communities,
given the breadth of Onteora, spread across three townships,
and including parts of several others) involved in deciding
its future. Because change is necessary.
Change is necessary because the buildings that house our educational
facilities, where our local kids will set out on their future
paths, and our region’s ability to both maintain cohesion
and attract new residents, are aging fast. Change is necessary
because the individual communities that make up Onteora are
shifting, with some losing their family-raising profiles while
others become more family-oriented. Change is necessary because
new educational standards, across the nation and state, call
for new norms that allow students to shift from elementary to
junior and senior high school via a cogent, three to four year
middle school experience. Change is necessary because change
is inevitable, especially when it comes down to the education
our young people need to keep up with a world that will change
beyond what we experienced at their age, and more.
Unfortunately, preparing for change — predicting it and
making the shifts in how we’ve done things to accommodate
how we feel we should be doing them – is not easy. It
can cost money into the future being planned for, via bonds
and other means of borrowing. Most importantly, it can cost
us the comforts tied to doing things the ways in which we’ve
always done things. It can be disruptive, and require more from
us, as social beings with a need to think of the communal good,
than we’ve become used to giving.
Several things have come up out of the recent Future of the
District meetings that have taken up the last couple of months
First off, our overall student body is shrinking in size. That
shrinkage is occurring much more quickly in some places –
Woodstock, in particular — than others. We need to look
anew at a situation that now has one elementary school closed,
three open, to see if that is the best use for our facilities…
do demographic trends and a shift to a four-grade middle school
suggest shifting down to two elementary schools? What with rising
transportation costs, would it make sense to situate those based
on a district-wide sense of need, or via current community wishes?
Secondly, the Middle School model — which we could only
eschew completely knowing that it would then set our students
apart from a shared national and state experience — suggests
that mid-grade students learn best when in their own school,
yet with access to the sports and classroom facilities of junior
and senior high schoolers. This may prove the most expensive
element in the current planning process.
Thirdly, and most difficultly, is the coherence of a school
district. Onteora has long suffered from a split personality.
This has been exacerbated in recent years by the difficult tax
issues raised by the Large Parcel issue, by the nostalgic loyalties
brought to the forefront during the mascot debacle; by the disparity
of the townships brought together under the Onteora roof. To
dissolve this union and start off again, we found in recent
years, is close to impossible. But if looking at hard choices
involving future changes, perhaps it makes sense to look at
all school matters, including who’s included, and not,
and the geographic problems that may have arisen in the years
since borderlines were first drawn.
The process is still in its early stages and we don’t
feel it’s time yet to start making hard suggestions other
than to point out what’s at stake. And urge deeper involvement
from all our community stakeholders.
We may not like the fact that we have to share these decisions
with other towns, people with different needs and wants than
us. But we do. And hence, we must at least try and consider
all aspects of the choices before us before spouting off opinions,
or using our fears to hamstring our kids.
Current talk includes the possibility of Woodstock losing its
school because West Hurley, close by, has a larger campus…
and the Woodstock facility could get a better asking price,
if it needed to be sold to help defray other costs of change.
How about a Middle School in Woodstock? Seems a bit close to
the Village Green for many parents, and the infrastructure isn’t
quite there in terms of sports facilities and the like. If whittled
down to two schools, could Olive allow Bennett to become a Middle
School, sharing facilities with the junior/senior high school
campus it shares parking lots with? Or would half the Onteora
community force Phoenicia to close, and those students in the
western end of the district to ride an hour or more each way
to elementary school?
It’s a shame more people didn’t come out to the
recent informational meetings on these subjects. These are very
difficult questions ahead of. They’ll need informed decisions
by we who will vote on these matters, in bonding resolutions,
in budget appropriations, in the shape of the boards who will
see Onteora face its future.
One thing is for certain. To simply react to such matters fiscally,
from the perspective of our current pocketbooks and wallets,
would be an even greater shame for our kids, and the future
of our towns. Our larger community. Our promise.
Happy Holidays and a strong New Year… may we all meet
what’s facing us all with strength, fortitude, and clarity.