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School House Switch

Faced with overcrowding in the classroom and failing charter schools, the Albany City School District looks to shuffle real estate

by Erin Pihlaja on October 25, 2012

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

 

The Philip Livingston Magnet Academy, formerly known as Philip Livingston Junior High, has seen better days. Named after Philip Livingston, who signed the Declaration of Independence, the building has been called a “centerpiece” of the Albany neighborhood where is sits on 14 acres just in front of Tivoli Park, an urban wildlife and nature preserve, that in the state of New York, is second in size only to Central Park.

It had functioned as a junior high and a middle school from 1932 until the end of the 2008-09 school year. After that the Albany City School District used the space for its alternative learning programs and as the headquarters of its food services division. That all ended at the close of the 2009-2010 school year, and the school has been vacant and deteriorating ever since.

“In the mid-2000s, the plan was to refurbish Livingston,” said Ron Lesko, spokesperson for the Albany City School District. “It would have cost $15 million to $16 million at that time.” Then the recession hit and that plan changed.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Dan Egan, president of the Albany City School Board. “We made the decision to close Livingston in 2008 just as the economy tanked. It had been appraised higher, and the school board thought we’d sell it for more money. It hasn’t moved. It’s a huge building and there’s not a huge market for a building of that size.”

“In May of 2010, we asked the voters to sell Livingston for $4.5 million. The following May we asked them to drop the price to $3.25 million,” Lesko said. This year voters are being asked to decrease the price once again, so the district can sell it for “not less than $2.5 million.”

“At $2.5 million, there are buyers interested,” said Egan. “We have to be responsible, we have to maintain that building every year and it costs taxpayers.”

According to Lesko, after a few early inquiries fell through, WinnDevelopment showed interest in turning the space into an assisted living facility for senior citizens.

Voters will decide whether or not to approve the lowered selling price on Nov. 6, but that’s not the only real estate deal they will be asked to consider. The school district is seeking voter approval to purchase a property at 50 Lark St., once the home of the now defunct New Covenant Charter School, for $2.5 million.

In addition to those two proposals, another deal is already in the works: the University of Albany is in talks to purchase the Philip Schuyler building at 141 Western Ave. from the district for around $2 million. The purchase of the New Covenant building is contingent on either this property or Livingston being sold.

“We don’t want to be in this business of real estate,” said Egan. “There is a background to all of this.” Egan said that the process of calculating the expected population for the school district is usually an “orderly” one. Based on projected numbers of enrolled students, the district then determines how much space it will need. “The curve ball in Albany was charter schools,” Egan said. “When I took office four years ago there were 12, today there are 10, this June there will be 9. I would predict you will see more and more of them fail. This has made it impossible to do capacity planning.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run, learning institutions. “The city school district pays each charter school $14,000 per student,” Egan said. “It’s a business.” When those businesses are not successful, their clients, the students, have to find somewhere else to go.

Egan said that in the city, “enrollment this year is up around 230 kids and around 400 from two years ago.” Many of those children returned from charter schools that closed their doors.

Two such schools run by the Brighter Choice Foundation, Albany Prep and the Achievement Academy, merged in June 2012. The Achievement Academy will close at end of 2012-2013 school year.

“From May 1, which was the day we found out that Albany Prep was closing, to Sept. 30, 217 students returned from Albany charter schools,” Lesko said. He estimated that approximately another 100 charter school students will enroll in Albany’s public school system by next year.

That may pose a problem for the Albany City School District. “We are packed to the gills in our middle schools, and even in our elementary schools,” said Egan. “Four years ago we closed a middle school. It’s impossible to accurately forecast how much space we will need.”

“We have had to plan at a moment’s notice to accommodate the closings,” said Lesko. “We know and already are taking a look at middle school capacity and thinking, ‘How do we plan for that?’” The district is hoping that the real estate shuffle will offer up some room for the district to breathe, but nothing is set in stone just yet.

“We are and have been in serious negotiations with all entities involved in all three of the properties: Schuyler, Livingston, and New Covenant,” said Lesko.

He noted that the asking price on the New Covenant building is $4.5 million but said that the district won’t pay more than $2.5 million. “We believe the owners of the property are $15 million in debt,” he explained.

The building is slightly more than a decade old and Lesko said that the operating and maintenance costs are significantly lower than what the Schuyler and Livingston buildings were. “The cost to the community will be pennies on the dollar in comparison,” said Lesko.

The district plans to sign a year-long lease with the option to buy the New Covenant building that would go into effect around January 2013. The school is 71,000 square feet and will be used to house the district’s alternative learning programs. The students will have access to the adjacent Arbor Hill Community Center’s facilities when school is in session.

“Over the next year New Covenant won’t be used for any other major programs, but it gives us some flexibility and we can start talking about what else we could do,” said Egan. “We feel great that we’re taking a building that has been abandoned in a neighborhood with challenges, and will fill it with kids and good education.”

“This is a sound and responsible financial investment for this community,” said Lesko who also noted that the sale of Livingston to a private investor would put the building back on the city’s tax rolls. There’s a lot riding on whether or not the voters agree that a “yes” to the district’s proposals make the most sense. Even if, as the district claims, “the purchase would be at no cost to taxpayers,” it won’t solve the looming problem of overcrowding that lurks in the district’s near future.

“A year from now we could be saying we have to open another middle school,” Egan said. Which means that the district may not be out of the real estate game just yet.

–Erin Pihlaja