For results and reflections, see Oneonta and Center Street School, 1981-2012.
One thing is sure: May 15 will bring more voters to the polls than in many years. By the end of the night, we’ll have a better idea of whether voters support a 1.81% tax-levy increase, below average in comparison to other New York districts, or will endorse Proposition 1 for a 6.96% total boost to education in Oneonta schools. Adding to the drama, there are four candidates for the two open Board of Education seats.
Whatever the outcome, there are a lot of unanswered questions about our ideals for education in Oneonta. Some of these seem like very basic, data-driven inquiries; others speak to larger issues. There are strong opinions, emotions, beliefs, and assertions–but there has been little reflection on three core issues:
What is the ideal size and staffing for each Oneonta elementary school?
This question seems basic, but it is often answered by numbers referring to building capacity, contract maximums, or what schools were originally “built for.” However, total capacity is not a realistic number–no building should run at 100% capacity, or else there is no room for fluctuation. Moreover, the assumptions under which these buildings were constructed–30 well-disciplined pupils sitting in rows in each classroom–are simply untenable in a contemporary educational setting. Oneonta also has a high proportion of children with special needs, and so it is important to allocate adequate spaces and resources for specific educational plans. There needs to be a survey that would take all this into account and think through these numbers as educational ideals, not just building capacity and hypothetical maximums.
What is the ideal integration of neighborhood, school, and community?
Schools can be a focus for neighborhood and community life. Some of the current districts promote neighborhood cohesion. But do current boundaries correspond to natural neighborhood and transportation catchment areas? Are there other boundaries that might make more sense–and might better balance enrollments with educational ideals? What will be the effect on property values if a particular school closes? Does the level of property tax influence residential decisions? What kind of neighborhood, community, and business changes might follow school closure? These questions are perhaps more difficult to predict or determine, but there is currently very little data–outside of strong opinions and declarations–to understand the integration of neighborhood, school, and community.
Additionally, the Oneonta district includes a number of semi-rural and rural homes. Some neighboring school districts are enduring even more drastic state funding cuts. What might happen if school districts expand and incorporate a larger area? What should be the balance between school buses, transportation time, and the number of children in a school? Will the demographics of Oneonta and neighboring communities alter as differentials in school financing develop? Should we look at different school possibilities–like magnet schools–that might reach beyond district lines or draw in different demographics?
What is the vision for education in this region?
As is obvious from the Rural Solutions Conference or from the Regional Economic Plan, the jobs of the future are not the jobs of the past. We need to train our students for new ways of working and living. We face the challenges that Oneonta has relatively high rates of poverty and a relatively large percentage of students with special needs. How do we best educate and train future generations to be engaged citizens? How can we develop programs to maximize lifetime earnings and keep our children competent in increasingly competitive labor markets?
In a 2010 book, Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources Are Limited, two economists compared programs in terms of their lifetime earnings. A few things that worked: Class-size reduction, curriculum reforms, teacher training, increased teacher pay. Given the specific needs and the relation of Oneonta to the wider region, we have to ask ourselves serious questions about how to best use scarce resources–for what purpose are we educating?
The best way to address these questions is to vote Yes-Yes-Yes on May 15, providing residents with the true time and resources for planning Oneonta schools. But if Proposition 1 does not pass, it would still be good to get some quick answers to these questions, so as to get a best-fit adjustment for the 2012-2013 school year and beyond.