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Public forum on Fowler Elementary draws more than 60


GOUVERNEUR — Natalie J. Spilman was near tears Monday as she pleaded with the Gouverneur Central School Board of Education not to close Fowler Elementary School as a cost-saving measure.

“It really makes me sick to my stomach you’re going to sell the children out,” she said. “I feel in my heart you’ve already made the decision and I’m very sad.”

More than 60 people, most of them opposed to the closure of the elementary school, attended the public forum hosted by the school board in the high school auditorium. Fowler Elementary, one of three elementary schools in the district, is being weighed for closure to help close an estimated $1.15 million shortfall projected for next year’s budget.

District officials estimate closing the school would save $224,000 in the first year, based on utility and contractual expenses, and savings on personnel, including positions in administration, maintenance, a nurse and food service. The bulk of the teaching staff would transfer, along with the pupils, to vacant classrooms in either East Side Elementary or West Side Elementary in the village. Class sizes would remain about the same.

“Your child is going to get the same type of attention,” board President Barry R. Smith said. “We’re not asking any child to go into a 35-children classroom.”

Some savings — perhaps about $65,000 worth — might come from rerouted bus runs, but Mr. Smith said the district was not interested in any financial gains if it came as the result of longer bus trips.

“I’m personally interested in reducing bus time,” he said.

At best, the district is looking at $400,000 in savings if the school is closed, and it will mean some job losses, said Fowler resident Rick W. Newvine.

“Is it worth 1 percent of your budget to disrupt a whole community?” he said.

Keeping the school open could mean a 4.5 percent increase in the tax levy, Mr. Smith said.

“Should we ask the entire school district to fork out 4.5 percent to pay for a school when we have vacant classrooms?” he said. “We’re faced with very challenging times. We wish we didn’t have to consider it.”

Closing the school would be a small portion of what the administration is considering, board member Clark R. Porter said.

“We can increase taxes 30 percent this year or we can reduce jobs and programs. It’s cuts. It’s going to negatively affect someone,” he said. “We’re running at bare minimum. There’s not a lot of options.”

Non-mandated programs and services include art, athletics, business electives, elementary guidance services, family consumer science, an agriculture program, kindergarten, some library services, music, the pool and limits on transportation.

Fowler taxpayers contribute 30 percent of the district’s levy while those in the town and village of Gouverneur pay 48 percent, Fowler resident David L. Spilman said. The remainder comes from surrounding towns.

“People in Fowler always wanted to pay our share,” Mr. Spilman said. “We are.”

Many in the audience supported eliminating non-mandated programs, such as sports, or to make them pay-to-play rather than close Fowler.

The district’s educational program has been on the losing side in recent budgets, Mr. Smith said.

“From my perspective, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for three years. We have lost teachers,” he said. “This has been a four-year process of cutting.”

Since the 2009-10 school year, the district has eliminated the equivalent of 16.5 full-time teachers while taking back some programs from St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, frozen building budgets, reduced maintenance purchases and cut back on administration.

Because Fowler is small with 116 pupils, it remained relatively untouched until last year when the district made its principal part time — combined with another position — and consolidated a secretarial position.

The board is expected to make a decision on the school Feb. 25 but the issue could end up delayed regardless of the vote. Mr. Spilman produced a law, circa 1949, that required any closure of the Fowler school be put to a public referendum in the town of Fowler.

“It’s not the law in 2013,” Mr. Smith said. “The school is a property of Gouverneur Central School District.”

However, Mr. Spilman said that could be for the courts to decide.

“It could probably be a lawyer’s field day,” he said. “There’s some of these old laws maybe they’ve never changed.”

Research into the law is not relevant to the Feb. 25 vote, but it could be meaningful later if it were valid, Mr. Smith said.

“It would null and void whatever action we took,” he said.

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