AUBURN — Another milestone in Auburn’s history was marked Tuesday when the Auburn school board voted to close West Middle School after the current school year, despite cheers from taxpayers in support of keeping the building open.
The vote was 8-1, with Joe Leogrande voting no. The resolution to close the school listed an estimated closure date of Aug. 19. The resolution also stated the board will continue discussions on the future use, lease or sale of the building.
A discussion and the vote took place during a regular meeting of the Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education, after a few months of consolidation discussions.
The closure will move all seventh and eighth graders to East Middle School, creating a total of 650 students at the lone middle school. Sixth graders would be spread among the district’s five elementary schools.
The closure is expected to eliminate 38 positions, 26 of which are teaching jobs, according to the district. Savings are expected to be around $1.63 million.
The Auburn district currently has a $6.5 million budget deficit, $4 million of which is due to cuts in state aid, said business administrator Lisa Green.
About 200 community members – many of them parents, students, teachers from West and alumni of West – sat in the high school library as the board discussed consolidation.
“I think we put this off longer than we should have,” said board member Bill Andre. “The students, the schools, have waited long enough.”
Andre said the district’s declining enrollment is a major factor in the closing and even if there wasn’t a budget crisis, empty classroom space would influence a closing at some point in order to be responsible to taxpayers.
Although Andre believes closure is necessary, he was disheartened.
“This is going to be the saddest vote I’ve ever been part of,” he said.
Board member David Lansford believes Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cuts to state aid will not be restored to the point where closure would not be necessary.
The audience applauded loudly when Leogrande said the district should cut at least one administrator position to show good faith to the teachers and community.
After the applause, Andre scolded Leogrande, saying he was only there to “grandstand.”
Board member Jason Lesch said he is sick of people questioning the worth of administrators and said they do important work that helps the district move forward with its goals.
“I’m tired of people taking shots at them,” he said.
Leogrande said he does not diminish the work of administrators and values them, but believes more cuts should be made before closing a school.
“I just think we can cut some more things that aren’t necessary or that aren’t affecting kids directly in the classroom,” he said.
During public comment section before the vote, several community members stood and delivered final comments about the closure.
“As a parent, as a taxpayer, as an employee, we all appreciate what an administrator does,” said Auburn resident Goldie Boglione. “We would like to see some trimming of any kind of fat you can find at the top first. #( That’s the general consensus and the thinking of your community.”
Auburn resident Cathy Martinez said she believes the consolidation process moved too quickly.
“For a lot of people, it makes us feel a little unsettled, a little untrusting,” she said.
Taxpayer Harry Flanigan was a dissenting voice.
“No matter what decision you folks make, you’re going to be criticized regardless, one way or the other,” he said.
Flanigan said students will be able to adjust to the shift to one seventh- and eighth-grade middle school and that consolidation is necessary.
“You’ve got to start thinking of cutting down,” he said. “Enrollment is shrinking; you’ve got to start thinking about consolidation.”
John Cambareri, a teacher in the Auburn district and co-president of the Auburn Teachers Association, said no matter what happens, teachers will ensure students succeed.
“Our students will be fine,” he said. “We will support them. We will be there for them. We will not let them fail or flounder.”
Just before the vote, Leogrande said the public was not consulted enough on consolidation.
“I think the dialogue is missing,” Leogrande said.
Before the meeting, some audience members spoke about their concerns related to the closure of West.
“West is a good, solid building with a good history,” said Auburn resident Arlene Ryan. “It should not close.”
Ryan doesn’t believe closing West will save that much money in the end.
“They’ve got to pay unemployment to people,” she said. “I don’t know where they’re going to save.”
Lynn Stillman, a sixth-grade teacher at East Middle School, said she is worried about the effect consolidation will have on the sixth-grade program.
“As a sixth-grade teacher, I’m concerned about how this will affect all the work we’ve done to create a sixth grade as a middle school setting and now we’re going back to an elementary setting,” she said. “We’ve worked really hard to make it a smooth transition between elementary school and middle school.”
Seventh-grade West student, Libby Plish, was worried about crowding at East Middle School.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “There’s probably going to be more fights next year.”
Susan Delaney, of Auburn, believes the decision was made long ago to close West.
“We know,” she said. “We’ve known for weeks. It seems like we don’t have a choice in the matter. It’s already been decided.”
Delaney worries about her seventh-grade daughter, who attends West.
“It’s disheartening to me,” she said. “The kids shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of transition.”
Staff writer Kelly Voll can be reached at 282-2239 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at CitizenVoll.