‘Transformational’ capital project coming into focus

Students enter Craig Elementary School to start the 2015-2016 school year on September 1, 2015. Photographer: Mark SchultzStudents enter Craig Elementary School to start the 2015-2016 school year on September 1, 2015. Photographer: Mark Schultz
By Zachary Matson
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — The timeline for a major capital project for Niskayuna schools came into clearer focus during the recent first meeting of a community committee formed to explore what the future of education in the district will look like.

The committee, composed of 40 district parents and residents, will spend the next nine months hashing out options for how the district can remake the way it teaches students, considering everything from how grades are structured across buildings to what kinds of spaces are needed to teach science and technology. The committee’s findings will go to the school board, as it hones in on the size and scope of a capital project that is expected to go for voter approval in fall of 2020.

Along the way, the committee will consider the administration’s vision for the district, growing student enrollment projections and the conditions of the district’s eight school buildings and the Hillside Avenue bus garage.

While finances were not part of the conversation at the Aug. 28 meeting — aside from one committee member asking, “How are we going to pay for it?” — Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said he expects to have more specifics on the project’s cost by next summer.

When describing the project to the committee, Tangorra said the goal was to “transform our [academic] programs and buildings.” The only known cost of that transformation is around $30 million in outstanding infrastructure work identified by a building needs review completed by architects and engineers in 2015.

Paul Seversky — an outside consultant contracted for up to $30,250 of work — is guiding the community committee as it meets monthly through the spring. Ultimately, the committee will rank a list of so-called “program delivery” models, which will outline what the district’s schools would look like after a capital project.

On Aug. 28, the committee started its work by listing key questions to guide their study, touching on everything from school safety and current building conditions to whether the district should collaborate more with other districts and expand STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — programming more deeply into elementary grades.

“School safety has to be mentioned,” said John Svare, who has young children in the school system. “In terms of safety, what is the district doing now, and what will it be doing in the future?”

At the committee’s next meeting, district administrators will present their vision of what education in Niskayuna schools will look like in the coming years. The committee will also study an analysis of projected future enrollment and the capacity of the district’s eight school buildings, meet with the district’s architects and tour schools in the coming months.

“You have growing enrollment. That’s a positive side of the study,” Seversky told the committee, as he assured them they would not consider closing a building. “It’s not only growing enrollment, but the program vision — like STEM — requires some space.”

Seversky also emphasized the importance of considering models from other districts without focusing too much outside Niskayuna.

“So what?” Seversky said when one of the committee members asked what other communities are doing. “They are not your kids. It’s not your community. It’s not your money. They may not have your values. I encourage you to reflect the values of Niskayuna.”

Members of the committee cautioned district officials about the logistics of construction and the disruptions it can cause in schools.

“Keep the current students in mind,” said Tim Welch, who recalled the disruption of a renovation of the high school when he was a student there around 2007. “The students after [the project] ends will get a nice school, but the ones there will not have a fun time.”

Joe Hehir, a grandparent of students in the district, warned the committee and district officials to plan for unforeseen, but potentially dramatic, changes in the economy or education policy.

“The focus should be on needs and not wants,” he said. “This may not work out the way we think.”