Each morning, dozens of students as young as 5 from subdivisions in the southern and southeastern corners of the Lancaster Central School District pile onto buses for the ride to the John A. Sciole Elementary School in the district’s northwestern corner.
The young pupils spend 45 minutes or more on the bus each morning and again in the afternoon, parents say. But on their trips, the youngsters pass two elementary schools in southern Lancaster to get to Sciole.
The district must bus some children a considerable distance to Sciole and its other three elementary schools because Lancaster faces a fundamental problem: Its two largest schools are in the northern part of the town, but most of the elementary-age students live in newer subdivisions in the south.
Lancaster isn’t the only local district wrestling with school boundaries, declining enrollment or long bus rides for pupils. Any attempt to address these issues stirs up parental emotions.
The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District recently closed Jefferson Elementary School and has hired a consultant to study further consolidation in a district whose student population is shrinking.
And nearly 300 people came out for a discussion of West Seneca’s plan, approved last month, to convert that district’s East Elementary School into a revamped East Middle School.
“Across Western New York, I think all districts are experiencing declining enrollment,” West Seneca Superintendent Mark J. Crawford said. “We need to face it, given the financial challenges such as significant reductions in state aid.”
West Seneca took on the challenge of closing an elementary school in response to budget constraints and a decline in the district’s population, which went from more than 9,000 students in the 1990s to 6,800 today even though the district still has seven elementary schools.
At Northwood Elementary School, where Crawford served as principal in the 1990s, enrollment has declined from around 650 then to a little more than 500 today, he said.
Following a passionate debate, the district closed East Elementary School because it shares a campus with East Middle School, allowing the district to expand the number of grades served by the middle school.
The district’s population is larger in the western part of town, but the district doesn’t have boundary or busing problems because four of its seven – soon to be six – elementary schools are in the west, Crawford said.
Clarence bus times
In the Clarence School District, the students who have the longest bus ride to the district’s four elementary schools live along Tonawanda Creek, the northern border of the district, or in the section of Newstead within the Clarence district.
The district prefers that students not ride longer than 45 minutes on a bus, but some may ride a little longer, said Rick Mancuso, the district’s business administrator.
If he could magically move an elementary school, Mancuso said, he would shift Sheridan Hill, on Boncrest Drive East, a mile or so to the north.
“Other than that, everything’s working well,” he said.
And the Orchard Park School District in 2007 redrew the boundaries for its four elementary schools because three of the schools were at, or over, preferred capacity; only Windom was under.
“The structure of the population got to the point where we needed to balance our schools to maintain class sizes,” said Al McClymonds, president of the Orchard Park School Board, recalling an inclusive decision-making process and packed board meetings.
The Lancaster district has faced this situation before, when it closed Central Avenue Elementary School in 2010. That school was centrally located in the district, but was the smallest of the five elementary schools, officials said.
After that closing, the district tweaked elementary school boundaries that had been in effect since 2002.
The district was left with two elementary schools a mile apart from each other in the north – Sciole, on Alys Drive East in Depew, and Hillview, on Pleasant View Drive in Lancaster – and two located 2½ miles apart in the south – Court Street and Como Park, on the streets of the same names.
Sciole and Hillview each can accommodate 75 to 90 more students than the smaller schools in the south. The elementary schools serve kindergarten through third grade, while William Street School serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
The four elementary schools were built between 1947 and 1964, when the Village of Lancaster was the densely populated part of town, said Superintendent Edward J. Myszka, who graduated from Lancaster schools.
The growth in the district in the last 20 years came in the new subdivisions in the south and southeast sections of the town, off Aurora Street, Lake Avenue and Bowen Road.
“The south, prior to that, was predominantly vacant land,” Myszka said.
The district a decade ago worked out a map that has Hillview covering the largest geographic area, mainly the northeastern part of the town. Como Park draws from a barbell-shaped district in the southwestern part of the district, and Court Street draws from a largely contiguous district located east of the Como Park district.
Sciole’s 379 students, however, come from three areas: 213 from the northwest corner of the district, 54 from a small pocket in the southern part of town and 112 from the larger piece in the far southeastern corner.
“The big problem, the reason this all came about, was the development in Lancaster. We were building, building, building, and nobody took into consideration where the building was happening,” School Board Vice President Marie MacKay said.
Parents say the odd configuration of the district can mean long bus rides for their children.
70-minute bus ride
Lynn Zamrok, co-president of the Sciole Parent-Teacher Organization, has a son in third grade at Sciole and a daughter in fifth grade at William Street who spent four years at Sciole. Her son can spend 45 minutes on the bus, each way. Next year he will join his sister in the much shorter ride to William Street School.
“I count the days now,” said Zamrok, whose family lives on Fox Trace. She said she recently joked with the Sciole principal, “I bet you, once I’m gone, they’re going to redistrict.”
Nicole Spaulding and her family live in the Country Club Estates development, leaving her son, a first-grader, with an “absolutely crazy” bus ride of 55 to 70 minutes to Hillview.
Both Zamrok and Spaulding say they love the Lancaster schools and recognize the complexity of the problem. As a short-term fix, they suggested not waiting until the buses are full and instead sending the buses on to their schools once they are half-full.
District officials, however, say this isn’t realistic because of the extra cost involved in using more buses and hiring more drivers.
School administrators say the general movement of students from south to north is the only way to make the numbers work.
At last week’s School Board meeting, Michael J. Vallely, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and pupil services, showed a map of the current district boundaries with colored dots representing students.
“Those particular boundaries are not perfect, not exactly commonsensical, but when we closed Central Avenue, it all works, and all the little dots there fit into the buildings in the appropriate ways,” he said.
2 redistricting options
The district reviews its boundaries each year, and as part of the review, presented two redistricting options to take the temperature of the School Board.
Based on the lukewarm reaction from the board, district officials say they won’t change elementary-school boundaries this year.
But they will watch the population trends in the district, where the classes entering elementary school now are smaller than the classes in the high school. In response, the district laid off three elementary-school teachers last year and is proposing to lay off two more this year.
“I think to address the inconvenience issues with some people, the options we see would create a bigger problem,” board President Kenneth Graber said. “We’d like to resolve it, but there doesn’t seem to be a better way.”
Clarification: This article was updated to clarify an imprecise initial reference to the location of John A. Sciole Elementary School. As stated later in the article, the school is located in Depew in the northwestern corner of the district.