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Fowler Elementary contemplated for closure

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GOUVERNEUR — The Gouverneur Central School Board will spend the next month and a half determining whether to close Fowler Elementary School as a way to help deal with declining enrollment, expected increases in costs, stagnant state aid and vacant classrooms in other buildings.

The board will welcome public comment at meetings, all of which will start at 7 p.m., Jan. 28, Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 in the high school.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible,” Superintendent Lauren F. French said. “We want the community to know about it.”

The district operates three elementary schools, two in the village and one in Fowler.

Major issues the board will address in deciding whether to close the elementary school will include tradition, busing routes and times, assimilation of pupils into other schools and the future of the building.

“I certainly respect and understand the Fowler School is a community center for that area. People enjoy the history of that building and want their children to have that experience,” Mrs. French said. “In better financial times, we would try to continue moving forward.”

Fowler town Supervisor Michael J. Cappellino predicted residents would oppose the closure.

“There’s going to be a lot of fuss going on, I’m sure,” he said. “A lot of people who live in Fowler went to school there and want their kids to go there. It would be a shame, really, to see it close from that point of view.”

The board recognizes the special qualities of Fowler Elementary, including an annual Thanksgiving banquet in which everyone eats together, Mrs. French said.

“I know we have to pay tribute to the value of that building,” she said. “It has its own traditions. There are a great number of after-school events that are well attended. It’s a nuclear community.”

However, the district expects to have $1.15 million in additional costs in next year’s budget while not expecting state aid to grow. Federal aid also is dropping.

Since 1976, district enrollment has dropped by about 1,000 students. In recent years, enrollment has remained steady, plus or minus 50-odd students, at 1,680, where it is expected to remain, Mrs. French said.

Fowler has 116 pupils, East Side Elementary has 406 pupils and West Side Elementary has 262 pupils. Class size averages 20 to 25 at all of the schools, which go through the fifth grade. There are 10 vacant classrooms at East Side and two open rooms at West Side.

“Our expenses are going up. We have open space and we’re looking for community input,” Mrs. French said. “We’re just trying to be fiscally responsible to the community.”

There have already been some key retirements that would minimize the impact a closure would have on staffing.

A nurse and a custodian at Fowler are retiring. The district hired Kimberly A. Hayes to be both principal and Committee on Special Education chairwoman. She and a secretary would continue working for the district in special education. The six classroom teachers and one reading teacher would move to the other elementary schools if enrollment stays the same. Librarians, art, music and physical education teachers who work part-time at Fowler would spend all of their days at the other elementary schools.

“We still have to serve those children,” Mrs. French said.

Savings would come primarily from cutting back on utilities, custodial services, maintenance and building improvements.

The district has looked at shutting down Fowler in the past.

“They’ve been talking about closing Fowler School since I was president of the school board 25, 30 years ago,” said Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler. “The problem is you don’t save that much money because you keep most of the staff.”

Mr. MacKinnon remembers when the district closed elementary schools at Richville and Brasie Corners.

“I don’t think the savings was all that great. There was a big loss in community pride and spirit,” he said. “Based on that experience, I don’t know if there’s a lot to be gained.”

What would happen to the building would also be part of the discussion.

Fowler might want the school for use as town offices, Mr. Cappellino said. The current town hall, which is cramped, could still be used by the Town Court and historian.

The Town Council casually discussed the idea a year ago when there was speculation the school would close.

“I don’t know if the town board would still be interested. There’d probably be a lot of work necessary. That might be an obstacle,” Mr. Cappellino said. “There’s a lot of possibilities for it. You could use the gym as a public activity center.”

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