Cherry Lane Elemetary School Photo/Peter Carr The Journal News

Suffern to shut elementary school as growing population sends kids to private yeshivas

“The Suffern school district’s population is growing. But public school enrollment is shrinking.

Many of those new families moving into the district are opting for private schools, Suffern schools Superintendent Erik Gunderson recently explained. That’s mostly yeshivas that serve the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community. The enrollment shift is most pronounced in the earliest grades.

The school district, which Gunderson said is in fine financial shape, is at a crossroads with fewer public school students.

The district has been studying if and how to consolidate its five elementary schools into four buildings. At an Aug. 22 school board meeting, trustees and Gunderson expressed support for not only reducing the number of elementary schools in operation to four but also restructuring the grade levels in each of those buildings.

Shuttering a school is a controversial move for any district. There’s neighborhood history and familiarity, a general reticence to change. But there’s also opportunity, Gunderson said.

Schools could have dedicated support staff, instead of sharing school psychologists and other jobs among buildings with a small number of students. Each elementary campus would have more equitable resources, like more parents to help out with PTA, more kids to participate in music programs and plays. And, there’s more chances for children to form friendships with classmates from outside their neighborhood.

‘Have to tackle this at some point’

Gunderson has repeatedly said the district is not being forced to consider a change because of finances. While the district is in good shape now, though, keeping schools functioning with small enrollments adds fiscal strains.

Gunderson and board members have also made clear that a closed building would not be sold. “Never, never lose a school building,” he said, “especially in this region.”

Rockland BOCES has interest in renting a school for one of their programs, Gunderson said. “It would be used as something that benefits the children of the district and of Rockland.”

Suffern Central school board members and the public got a first look at three consolidation options at the Aug. 22 board meeting. School Board President Matthew Kern said the board should consider narrowing the choice at its Sept. 5 meeting and making a final decision on whether to proceed by mid-October so the plan would be ready to launch at the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year.

“This has been something that has been talked about, whispered about, rumored about,” Kern said, throughout his eight-year tenure on the board. “We’re going to have to tackle this at some point.”

Five into four, paired in twos

The district has five elementary schools: R.P. Connor, Montebello, Sloatsburg, Cherry Lane and Viola. All house students in kindergarten through grade 5.

The consolidation would use a modified “Princeton Plan,” with schools grouped by grade level rather than geographically.

Two schools would house grades K-2 and two schools would house 3-5. Students would move together from a K-2 school to a 3-5 school.

Gunderson said decisions would be made to balance the schools’ population of children who are English language learners, from low-income homes, and other considerations. Skye Pisco, a Suffern resident, has a son starting middle school this year and a daughter entering third grade at R.P. Connor. She sees opportunity in the plan for added support at each campus, especially for a growing number of Spanish-speaking families.

Here are the options, detailed at the Aug. 22 school board meeting:

Plan 1: R.P. Connor and Sloatsburg would be K-2 campuses; Connor students would go to Cherry Lane and Sloatsburg students to Montebello for grades 3-5. Viola would be repurposed.

Plan 2: Sloatsburg and Cherry Lane would be K-2 campuses; Sloatsburg students would go to R.P. Connor and Cherry Lane students would go to Montebello for grades 3-5. Viola would be repurposed. Plan 3: Sloatsburg and Viola would be K-2 campuses; Sloatsburg students would go to R.P. Connor and Viola students would go to Montebello for grades 3-5. Cherry Lane would be repurposed.

Gunderson said for many district children, the bus ride would likely be longer at some point, depending on which school they attend. He estimated that the ride could be about 13-15 minutes longer, at most, compared to a neighborhood school trip. He added, though, that the district has had complaints about kindergartners riding buses with fifth-graders, so that issue would be addressed. The district provides universal busing.

Gunderson said that he didn’t anticipate layoffs, because there are planned retirements. But the building consolidation, he said, would bring “long-term efficiencies.” The district has held several community discussions and plans more, Gunderson said.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage here.