By Erin Maher
A large contingent of residents and parents in the Bedford Central School District have mobilized since September to oppose the district’s potential closure of up to two of its five elementary schools due to declining enrollment.
Since Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christopher Manno e-mailed the community in September announcing that the issue would be studied, parents and residents in the district have organized opposition, showing up in force at board meetings, frequently posting on social media and sending letters to the Board of Education.
A grassroots community group, Neighbors Together for BCSD, has sprouted, the work of former trustees Pam Harney and Michelle Brooks and district parent Jennifer Kothari. They founded the group shortly after the district announced its Long Range Facilities Plan in an effort to alert the community and school officials about the potential reduction from five elementary schools to three or four and what impact that would have on the community.
Since its inception, the group has attracted than 1,000 members to its Facebook page and created the website www.bcsdfivetothrive.org.
“We want to provide a platform to find Board of Education documentation, facts and experienced commentary,” Kothari said. “We seek to avoid conjecture and a community feeling of being left behind.”
Neighbors Together allows community members to lodge their concerns and looks to keep residents informed through reports from Board of Education and subcommittee meetings. It also serves as a call to action for residents to attend district functions to show unity in the opposition against a school closure.
A key argument against a potential closure is Neighbors Together disputing the accuracy of the district’s information in the demographer’s report, and that there is ultimately no appreciable decline in enrollment.
The group claims that according to state Department of Health biometrics, in 2017 there were 300 live births in the district. In his initial study, Dr. Paul Seversky from the SES Study Team, a demographic and strategic planning firm, used the number 266, based on a preliminary study from 2017 that was published early in 2018, before all data was available.
The group has continually highlighted the discrepancy to trustees. While the district has not formally commented on the alleged inaccuracies, Seversky wrote a memo, refuting the group’s claims and cited his reasons for using the preliminary number.
His conclusion is that using live births within a district is an inaccurate representation of future enrollment because not every child born in a district will go to school there.
“Bedford is faced with the likely challenge of declining enrollments K-5, having too much pupil capacity to serve the expected enrollments in 5, 8 and 10 years from now, and having too many (full-time equivalent) staff to serve future enrollments given the current program,” Seversky wrote in his memo. “Funding excess capacity and staffing given likely future enrollments usually gives no value-added to opportunities for the students of the district.”
After the memo was issued, the district published its own analysis of its statistics, using the Bedford By the Numbers report as opposed to the Bedford Enrollment numbers which Seversky cited. Both the district’s analysis and Seversky’s reports show declining enrollment.
Enrollment projections released by the district in the fall showed that by 2028, high school enrollment is forecast to drop 28 percent. There were 1,384 students in grades 9-12 in 2018 and only 997 students are anticipated in those grades by the end of that 10-year period. Districtwide enrollment has fallen from 4,367 students in 2013-14 to 3,915 last year, according to district data.
In the last five years, elementary school enrollment has plummeted an even greater percentage, the Bedford By the Numbers report showed. In 2014-15, there were 1,965 K-5 students in Bedford while this year there are 1,585. Four of the five elementary schools have seen student population drops of 18 to 29 percent over that period. Only Bedford Hills Elementary School has seen an increase of 37 students in that time, a nearly 12.8 percent rise.
Neighbors Together for BCSD cited the welfare of students as its main concern against closing any school and the negative impacts that could have on their educational experience.
“It’s simple – closing a school would result in larger class sizes, less teachers and longer time spent on a bus for our children,” Kothari said. “None of these benefit our students’ education.”
Besides compromising students’ educational experience, children moved from a closed school could experience emotional turmoil as well, said Dr. Brian Monahan, a professor of education at Pace University in Pleasantville.
“Any time a child’s school is changed and he/she is separated from friends and teachers, it is very emotional for the student and the parents,” Monahan said.
The district has also refuted the idea that class sizes would grow. According to the district’s Long Range Facilities Plan FAQ, “…the district adheres to class policy guidelines. There are no contractual limits; however the district does not determine class sizes based on contractual limits. The policy guidelines are used.”
The district’s elementary class size guidelines allow for no more than 25 students in K-1 classes and 28 students a class in grades 2-5.
Many in the community believe, including Harney, a Neighbors Together co-founder and former trustee, that money is the catalyst driving the potential elementary school contraction, although school officials have denied that motive on several occasions.
Harney said in 2016, the district’s then-interim superintendent, John Chambers, stated publicly to the Space and Enrollment Committee that he thought the district should close Bedford Hills Elementary School, which would save roughly $1 million. The issue was raised often enough where it became part of regular public discussion, she said.
However, the district’s financial standing is now in far superior condition under Superintendent Dr. Christopher Manno’s leadership through better management, staff retirements of veteran teachers, efficiencies and eliminating wasteful practices, Harney said.
“There are still areas where this can be done,” Harney explained. “And there are still potential savings if there really is a continued decline in enrollment, but the declines outlined in the demographer’s report are overstated and some key conclusions of that report are flawed.”
In January 2017, Bedford Central was listed as the third most fiscally stressed district in the state by the state comptroller’s office for the 2015-16 school year. Following the fiscal upheaval, school officials took immediate action. By last January, Bedford was removed from the distress designation list.
On Jan. 7, the board released a letter to the community regarding the Long Range Facilities Plan.
“We recognize and understand the concerns that some community members have expressed, and we are committed to continuing to engage and listen to the public as this process moves forward and recommended options are presented to us in the coming months,” the correspondence read.
The district held multiple community forums in October to receive feedback from the public, and sent an online survey district-wide earlier this month.
At this week’s Board of Education meeting, Interactive, Inc. was scheduled to address comparative building capacity utilization and budget estimates along with analysis on community opinion.
On Feb. 10 and 11, the board will hold additional community forums and plans to reveal to the public the cost of operating an elementary school, three-year budget estimates and a report on community feedback.
District consultant Interactive Inc. plans to present its recommendation to the board in March, with plans for the board to adopt the final Long Range Facilities plan by June.
For more information on BCSD’s Long Range Facilities plan, visit www.bcsdny.org.