Teacher concerns lead to discussion of space at SAHS

The Stillwater Area School Board discussed growing concerns about classroom space at Stillwater Area High School for the 2017-2018 school year during its April 27 learning session. Some of these concerns sparked a letter from about 50 teachers at the high school to the school board.

“Many wonderful and important changes are coming to [Stillwater Area High School],” the letter states. “Nonetheless, teachers are not being heard and are concerned by how the current decision-making process may jeopardize creating the best learning environments, leaving teachers without their own classroom.”

The 2017-2018 school year will see many changes to the Stillwater Area High School. While new classrooms and activity spaces will increase the size of the building, the new school year will also see the addition of the district’s ninth-grade students for a total of four grade levels at the high school. The school district also ended its $250,000 annual lease of a building that houses the Alternative Learning Center (ALC), and those students will also join the high school as the program moves into dedicated classrooms.

While the influx of students to the building has made demands on available classroom space, said principal Rob Bach, future school years will see fewer students in the building. In the 2015-2016 school year, the 10th-grade class had 699 students — more than any other grade in the district. But younger classes were smaller. The first-grade class, for example, had 599 students. As the classes grow and move up through the grade levels, each graduating class is expected to have fewer students and require fewer classrooms.

This enrollment “bubble” is causing scheduling issues for the 2017-2018 school year, Bach said.

“Where we stand right now in our core areas are extremely close to one-to-one in terms of FTEs (full time equivalents) and teaching spaces,” Bach said.

Some spaces in the building that are currently used for a few hours per day will be used more frequently next year, Bach said.

“We will certainly operate a more efficient building — and I will put air quotes around the term efficient — because we have had some luxuries in place today we won’t … necessarily have in the future,” Bach said. “By luxuries, let’s say, for example, teachers who teach two sections over the course of a day — right now that classroom stays vacant for the remaining four periods of the day.”

Some teachers who may only teach a few classes per day will be now required to share a classroom with another teacher, Bach said. Bach used the example of a French teacher who will come to the high school for only two class sections per day: one section will be taught in an empty French classroom, and the other section will be taught in a different French classroom.

“If we look at things from an FTE standpoint, which is different than the total number of people that we have, we will have a space for everyone,” Bach said.

Board member Jennifer Pelletier said she was not aware that an enrollment “bubble” was going to take place when the ninth grade was moved to the high school.

“Are we looking at long-term projections and being planful for that? That was a bit of a disconnect for me,” Pelletier said.

“The projections that we looked at went out about 10 years and, like you, I questioned some of those things,” Bach said. “We have a projection right now, but that could look a lot different five years from now.”

“At the end of the day, we are a public institution and we need to make do with the resource we have available to us,” board member Paula O’Loughlin said.

One of the concerns voiced by the teachers’ letter was the addition of the ALC to high school. Board member Sarah Stivland said she felt the ALC move was not communicated with teachers.

“It seems to me that before the decision was made to move the ALC to the high school, it seemed that from all of the conversations before that there was going to be enough space at the high school for next year, even with the bubble,” Stivland said. “Once the decision was made to move the ALC to the high school, all of a sudden there were a lot of concerns. To me this is not as much about space as about communication.”

Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said part of the Long-Range Facilities plan was to eliminate the cost of leasing a building for the ALC program.

“The reason we want to use space effectively and efficiently is to save money so that we can put money into our staff and our programs,” Pontrelli said. “As always, you can look at those spaces and spend more money — it would be much easier for us — but you have to think if we are going to spend $300,000 here and $500,000 here, where is that going to come from?”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]