The school district is in the process of developing a long range facilities plan to accommodate a substantial increase in enrollment and increasing educational requirements. As part of this process, a community forum/educational planning session was held on Monday, Nov. 9. Approximately 100 people attended the forum. The purpose of the forum was to solicit public input to help develop the long range plan and to brief the community on the observations made to date by the district's educational planning consultant, KBD Planning Group, Inc., which was hired in September. It's expected that the final report will be completed by the middle of December and will be presented to the public shortly thereafter.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Inserra advised that the board is currently working on "bridging the gap between our educational program and the facilities needs that have been identified," adding that "the essence of the process is involvement at all levels of school and community." He reported that Bill Day of KBD has already met with smaller groups and spent hours with staff soliciting input. Currently, he's looking over the information gathered over this time.
By way of reviewing the space needs in the district vis á vis the enrollment projections, Dr. Inserra reiterated that over the last five years the enrollment in the elementary schools was underestimated by 20 percent, leaving the available space at the elementary schools, "pretty tight," in the words of Bill Day. "The current fifth grade is the leading edge of an increase of what we see as a very consistent pattern of enrollment increases in our K-5 group," said Dr. Inserra. "Looking at the 6-12 enrollment figures, there's a clear point of departure," he added.
Mr. Day noted that the students in the K-5 group are "already born and in school," and their numbers not based on speculation.
Describing the goals of KBD, Mr. Day said, "We're looking to come up with options that are educationally sound and economically feasible." He said that about seven or eight options are being looked at and being examined in terms of their pros and cons, based in part upon what they hear from the community and staff.
Mr. Day feels that the most pressing problem for the district is the middle school, whose enrollment will increase by 150 students over the next three years. He pointed out that until a decision is made on how to handle the middle school increase, it renders what is going to be done with the elementary schools and high school moot. (A discussion on options for accommodating the middle school enrollment increase will be held on Dec. 1.)
Another influence on the final long range plan will be a new state mandate regarding special education students. The new mandate states that any facility plan submitted to the State Education Department must provide space in district facilities to accommodate all of the special education students who currently attend BOCES in programs outside of the district. Presently, 93 special ed. students fall into this category.
Another side issue mentioned by Mr. Day concerns the universal pre-K program. While this program could take many different forms and may or may not have a significant impact on the facilities' needs in the district, in its worst case scenario the program could require up to 12 additional classrooms.
Generally speaking, Mr. Day said that he was impressed with the high scores that Port students obtain on achievement tests and the high percentage of students who graduate from high school in the district. He finds this especially remarkable given, in his words, "the inadequate learning environment, with 90 percent of all of the instructional classrooms not meeting the minimum class size." Mr. Day says that under the circumstances, the excellent results are the product of "good kids, good teachers and good leadership."
Mr. Day also commented that he "applauded" the creativity of those who over the years have converted locker rooms, shower rooms and custodial closets into space for support programs.
Speaking about the technology component in the educational program, Mr. Day noted that, compared with other districts nationwide, the district's technology program could be upgraded.
For the public commentary portion of the forum, Dr. Inserra asked that residents think in terms of whether their desired educational programs are being delivered.
Mr. Day noted that obtaining input from the public is the easy part of the job, and jokingly said, "because you don't have to come up with any solutions."
Following are the concerns, wishes, suggestions and varying points of view expressed by the community members who attended the forum.
One recurring concern stated by members of the audience involved the reliability of enrollment projections. Because miscalculations have been made in the past, causing some schools to be closed or sold, some fear that money will be wasted on expansions that may not be necessary in the future.
Mr. Day advised that both his firm and the board are using the most highly recommended methodology to determine the enrollment projections. He believes that the projections have been made on "solid ground," especially in light of the fact that Port is a primarily residential area, where residents aren't at the mercy of large businesses or factories that can close up and take large numbers of people with them.
He reiterated that the current figures will be pretty close for at least the next five years because those students already exist. "They're either in school, or born."
Another consideration expressed by several speakers was for the board to offer a range of options from the most stingy to the state-of-the-art. Concerns about driving senior citizens out of town because of school tax increases were expressed. In line with this, it was noted that seniors then usually sell their homes to young families who increase the school enrollment, thereby requiring more school tax increases.
The board was also advised to bear in mind that should the board ultimately put up a bond, the feasibility of having it passed by the taxpayers must be considered. "Which option will get the most yes votes?" one speaker said.
Other concerns/suggestions/wishes briefly noted were:
* Need to set aside space for resource staff.
* Aesthetics important. Maintain character of older buildings.
* Maximum class size that works.
* Class size is a concern-Direct impact on how facilities should be planned.
* Open meeting spaces should be provided.
* Also need art studios with adequate storage spaces.
* Good lighting, windows and skylights.
* School size is important as class size-small is better. (Mr. Day noted at the end of the meeting that this priority came through loud and clear from residents.)
* Special attention to quality teachers and small class size.
* While most speakers agreed that small class size is important, a few did not and spoke of trade offs with analysis of class size.
* Direction of system with regard to the arts in general/curriculum in the future. It was noted that parents in Port are currently supplementing the arts program the students participate in at school.
* A parent interested in returning to work favors after school programs until 6 p.m., and also before school.
* Foreign language programs for younger children should be included.
* Importance of efficient scheduling in use of facilities. This speaker was astounded to hear that building a new middle school is under consideration. "That's a big bill."
* Solutions must be cost effective and preserve open space.
* Importance of adequate playing fields and open spaces for children to congregate.
* Be careful to plan buildings that accommodate only the numbers that will actualize.
* Provide spaces for ancillary staff who are not permanent part of building team.
* Exercise fiscal responsibility.
* How will we house additional Weber students in short term?
* Maximize use of school buildings on secondary campus through rescheduling.
* Concerns regarding need for redistricting.
* Consider timeliness of expediting recommendations.
* Need to move forward in best interests of children.
* To supplement school tax increases, homeowners should give back a portion of their profits when selling (flip tax).
* Increase teacher/pupil ratio.
* Continuation and expansion of alternate high school.
* Balance between skyrocketing taxes and needs of educational system.
* Provide full range of options from stingy state of the art schools.
* Technology that takes us effectively into the 21st century.
* Investigate corporations as funding sources for education.
* Need to develop a plan and invite partnerships with business and industry.
* How many more students can fit in current facilities.
* Consider interconnecting of the secondary schools (one large campus on Campus Drive).
* Implementation timetable---impact and implications of delays.
* Options must have a range and a balance.
* Ideal school size to maximize teacher time.