Dr. Phyllis Spiegel McGill, Onteora Superintendent. (Photo by Lisa Childers)

By a six-to-one vote, the Onteora Central School District Board of Education chose Model three or the Bookends plan, the sole proposal of three options it was considering that would keep Phoenicia Elementary School open. Beginning in September 2012, the new school year will have Woodstock and Phoenicia schools housing Kindergarten-through-grade-three, while Bennett Elementary will host grades four-through-six. Currently, all three elementary schools house Kindergarten through grade six.

At the February 28 special meeting in the High School Auditorium, trustee Dan Spencer was the sole “nay” vote, instead favoring the model that would close Phoenicia and create a Kindergarten-through-two school at Woodstock elementary and grades three-through-six at Bennett Elementary. Spencer said he “respectfully” disagreed with the rest of the board’s choice but would work hard in making the new configuration a success. “We have a very talented group, a strong administration, great teachers and above all great kids, so it’s important for me to state that I believe…in supporting the path that the majority has taken…my goal from this point forward is success [for] us as a group and district.”

The meeting was quick and sparsely attended, with no public commentary section. As the vote was taken and statements read by trustees, the audience was silent with only a small group noisily departing once the majority made its choice. Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel McGill and trustees all thanked people for writing letters voicing their concerns. McGill said, “Cost continue to rise and the state and federal governments continue to cut our aid.” With the Governor’s two percent tax increase cap, McGill explained that it no longer allows the district to maintain its current configuration. If the district were to simply roll over its budget for the 2012-2013 school year, it would see a seven percent increase. With the new configuration, providing a budget with the allowable two percent tax increase was approved, the district projects a $2.1 million savings and a spending increase of $443,055, including 28.5 employee lay-offs.

“I believe this plan will [give us the] ability to place many of our early literacy programs so that our children will benefit and thrive,” trustee Rob Kurnit said. “It is my hope that the community will come to look at this choice as an opportunity for success and positive growth.” Kurnit has consistently kept early literacy as a district need since taking his seat as a board member.

“The means of funding our public schools is broken,” said trustee Laurie Osmond. “I believe that our schools should be funded with an equal distribution of income tax, revenue and greater support from our federal Government. I also believe our crisis is being forced by our Governor (Cuomo) for political aspirations.”

Board president Ann McGillicuddy said school boards have lobbied Albany for years asking for changes in school funding to no avail. “I believe as a school board we must maintain local control and keep our schools open and thriving with the goal of improving learning in the classroom for students.” She encouraged the pubic to get involved and join the Legislative Action Committee to help fight for change.

Trustee Tony Fletcher said there were three reasons for his choice: fiscal, educational and rightsizing the district. “This trustee is proud to support a model that will keep all three remaining elementary schools open and thriving,” said Fletcher.

Trustee Michael McKeon said, “I’m not sure I agree with the idea that our district is deficient, I think we can do better and this model allows us to take a step in that direction.”

Trustee Tom Hickey did not make a statement during the meeting. In a separate interview Hickey said he favored the grade clustering because it offers a “better educational delivery system.” He believes just thinking solely on how much money the district spends is “shortchanging,” education on students. ++