By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
Though Grant elementary school in North Tonawanda has been closed for months, the school board on Tuesday began leaning toward renovating the building, thus implying the fate of Gilmore school could be in question.
Stretching back more than a year, a combined $750,000 was set aside as part of the district’s ongoing $48 million capital improvement plan for work at both schools. The money represents rough estimates to bring the buildings up to code and was originally intended to be split in renovations to both buildings.
But the overarching debate on redistricting and declining enrollment caused both to be put on the backburner while officials continue to debate which to close. As of Tuesday night, it appears Grant will instead see sizable investment.
“By saying you’re going to put emphasis on Grant you’re almost saying you’re going to close Gilmore at some point,” Board Member Art Pappas said, but stressing the board is trying to distinguish the decision to invest in Grant over the next year or two from any decision regarding closures.
“If they make a decision to close Gilmore it would be a separate decision probably in a year or so,” Pappas said, adding there seems to be a consensus to inform residents about the exact reasons for such decisions.
One reason Grant seems headed for a resurgence is its location relating to possible redistricting. For example, it could absorb students from Spruce elementary, which is encountering an enrollment boom, and to Meadow, where there is much space to be utilized.
In essence, board members on Tuesday were trying to think both long term (insofar as which renovated building would work best for moving students in a redistricting scheme) and short term, as the window for a renovated school within the scope of the capital project will be roughly 13 months.
“We’re looking to see what we’re going to add to the scope of the project,” District Superintendent Vincent Vecchiarella said, adding perspective to the decisions being made. “We know we’re going to be closing one. I don’t think anybody is going to tell us we can get by with closing both this year.”
Architects Ray Bednarski and David Varecka, with Kideney Architects, provided numbers on enrollment and structural details on both schools Tuesday while members debated the merits of using some $1 million in adjusted money to overhaul the newer Grant school building.
While Grant was closed months ago, it has been home to construction management offices as well as Niagara Head Start and another non-district entity that essentially pays the rent. Bednarski indicated the original data had always pointed toward possibly closing Gilmore school, though it was Grant that has been taken off line.
The ultimate considerations are many, as evidenced by a lengthy debate Tuesday.
While Gilmore is slightly larger and could hold about 344 students, it has small rooms and presents massive hurdles to renovation because it isn’t handicapped accessible and would require huge investment.
Gilmore, however, has more technology, Superintendent of Educational Services Greg Woytila acknowledged. Construction officials, however, said most of it isn’t in infrastructure to the physical building.
Grant is newer and has an auditorium and big rooms, the research went on to suggest, though it also has slightly less capacity at an estimated maximum 326 students.
Numbers explored years prior to the referendum authorizing the capital project indicate the roomy Meadow school has seen a decline in enrollment. Spruce has increased dramatically, Drake school’s enrollment is down and Ohio appears stable.
“Spruce is full. It’s going to be fuller in five years,” Varecka said.
Woytila and others liked the proximity of a reopened Grant school to the brimming Spruce, as just one example of the debate that will ultimately include all district buildings.
“Gilmore would close because you could absorb students into Drake,” he continued, while going through a chain of contingencies favoring the school for investment.
The board repeatedly stressed its awareness that closures and redistricting are emotional topics for many residents and Member Mike Carney suggested holding a meeting in the Alumni Center on Meadow Drive after Pappas asked for input on how to keep the public in the loop.
“I just feel whatever we do the public should be told the reasons in some kind of forum,” Pappas said.