Watertown school officials consider consolidation

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry Fralick discusses upcoming changes for the district, while meeting with the Times editorial board. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry Fralick discusses upcoming changes for the district, while meeting with the Times editorial board. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

The Watertown City School District Board of Education and superintendent are taking the first steps toward considering consolidation of the district’s elementary schools.

Terry N. Fralick, superintendent of Watertown City Schools, presented the board with preliminary research and plans for consolidating the five elementary schools in the district.

“I have been talking about this for a long time,” Mr. Fralick said. “The board has changed a lot and I think now is the time to have a serious conversation about this.”

Mr. Fralick said he has two plans.

One of the plans is to build a large central kindergarten through fourth-grade school, which would move 1,700 students into a single building and could be around a $50 million project.

“We have five kindergarten through fourth-grade buildings and we can’t afford to keep it up,” Mr. Fralick said. “Our building aid from the state has gone down from 95 percent to about 85 percent.”

The other plan is to build a single building near H.T. Wiley Intermediate School, which is an 85-acre campus, for all third- through fourth-grade students and move kindergarten through second-grade students from North and Starbuck Elementary schools to Ohio, Sherman and Knickerbocker Elementary schools.

“There’s a difference of opportunity at those three schools. They don’t have real PTOs and can’t raise enough money to take field trips. The class sizes this year have remained around 25 students, which is more than other schools in the district,” Mr. Fralick said. “A lot of the poorer students in the district attend those schools and a lot of the military transient students.”

Watertown City School District has a 65 percent participation in the free or reduced price lunch program, and the superintendent said a lot of those students attend the north side elementary schools.

“If we can improve the education the north side students receive the higher the graduation rates will be,” Mr. Fralick said. “I cannot see any other way to deal with the problem. We will provide better instruction with less buildings.”

Teachers who lead elective classes have to travel from school to school each day under the current model.

“A teacher may have to travel to three different buildings a day,” Mr. Fralick said. “These teachers are provided 30 minutes for transition time, which compromises instruction time.”

He also said professional development for teachers would be more efficient with less buildings.

The superintendent also said consolidating schools will reduce response times during emergency.

“It would save us money on heating as well,” Mr. Fralick said.

Other school districts in Northern New York have also considered consolidation.

Massena Central School District has been discussing consolidation plans including moving pre-kindergarten through third-grade students to Nightengale Elementary School, and moving grades four through six to J.W. Leary Junior High and adding seventh and eighth grades to the high school.

The Ogdensburg City School District consolidated by closing two elementary schools in 2013 and 2014 and building an extension to another elementary school.

Syracuse University will be helping the Watertown City School District with further planning for consolidation and Mr. Fralick said there is a lot of planning still to do.

State regulations set a debt limit for small city school districts like Watertown.

The district would have to ask local taxpayers for permission to exceed the debt limit.

Then the plan would have to be approved by both the State Education Department and the state comptroller.

Mr. Fralick said adding the $12.5 million capital project, which has been waiting for SED approval for two years, and other projects in the past the district could not go more than $20 million above the cap.

“I want to make sure that we are doing this by the book. So we are taking our time,” the superintendent said.

He said after he gets feedback from the district Board of Education public information meetings will be held throughout the district.

“There’s going to be a point when we are going to have to face this idea,” Mr. Fralick said. “The district can’t keep going this way.”

By Richard Moody, Watertown Daily Times