Rebirth of a School

JOHNSTOWN -The Greater Johnstown School District closed the former Jansen Avenue Elementary School five years ago.

However, there is some question as to whether the district saved as much money as intended, especially since largely re-opening the school in 2013.

The 34,901-square-foot, 16-classroom building served children up to grade six for decades, until the district decided to shut it down on June 26, 2009. Officials said declining district enrollment and an initial assessment that about $900,000 could be saved that year necessitated the closing.

Energy costs alone at the time were $53,000 for the 2008-09 school year. From 1996 to 2009, the district had spent over $2 million in construction costs connected with the school.

Jansen’s enrollment in 2009 was 195 children, which was a drop of 24 percent since 1998.

Closing Jansen left three city elementary schools – Glebe Street Elementary School, Warren Street Elementary School and Pleasant Avenue Elementary School.

After four years of not being able to sell the closed Jansen building, district officials decided by 2013 that the building could be used again for education. Officials said having an empty school building for several years just wasn’t a great promotion of the district anyway.

“That’s not the best message,” said Superintendent Robert DeLilli.

DeLilli doesn’t have exact figures as to how much it costs to partially operate the Jansen building now versus when it was fully open as an elementary school. But he knows the district is earning revenue now.

District Business Manager Alice Sise didn’t return calls seeking comment.

After concluding the building’s 43-year history as an elementary school, new uses were found. The district decided to make use of the space for such things as PTA events, sports practices, training for district custodial staff and as an alternate testing site for AP exams and SAT tests. The building also was used for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots annual holiday toy drive, and served as a site for the Johnstown Police Department to conduct canine training and emergency drills.

Now named simply “Jansen Avenue School,” the building has served two distinct purposes this past school year. The Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services rents some of its space. The district last September also launched its new Learning Project, a pilot program for a handful of preselected Johnstown High School seniors.

This September, Jansen Avenue School will notably become the site of a new multi-school district effort. It will serve as the location for the new P-Tech Early College High School, which will allow students to earn an associate degree tuition-free from Fulton-Montgomery Community College while they are still earning their high school degrees.

DeLilli recently told a crowd at a budget hearing Jansen Avenue School now generates at least $100,000 in annual rent revenue for the district.

“Five years ago, that wasn’t an option,” DeLilli said. “We’re looking to expand that.”

At the same forum, then-Board of Education candidate Salvatore Giarrizzo said before the Johnstown district closed Jansen Avenue Elementary School, administrators “assured” the public there would be $4.9 million in revenue savings over five years.

“We haven’t seen it,” he said.

DeLilli, who was not employed by the district when the decision was made to close Jansen, said that figure may have been in an “impact study” the district had a consultant do during the 2008-09 school year. But he said that was an estimate based on a worse fiscal picture than has actually occurred since then.

He said the district budget was at $29 million for 2008-09, only growing to about $30 million five years later.

DeLili said the district did save $900,000 immediately following the closing of the school, through staff and benefits. At the time, some teachers were shifted to other schools and some staff retired, and there was a savings through attrition.

He said the district still owes the state Education Department about $280,000 to cover the remaining debt service on the building, projected to be paid off by 2023.

Current board President Paul VanDenburgh, who was not on the board when Jansen was closed, said he would like the district to look to the future with the newer uses of the building.

“I think there was some difficult decisions made all around the closure of one of those buildings, and it happened to be Jansen Avenue School,” VanDenburgh said. “I’m really excited about the rebirth of Jansen Avenue School. I’d rather exert energy on the P-Tech program, rather than try to dig up things of the past.”

DeLilli said the Jansen building when empty cost the district about $10,000 to $12,000 pear year to operate with electricity and gas heat. Additionally, some manpower was still necessary at the closed Jansen for snow removal and mowing lawns.

He said BOCES now rents about four or five Jansen classrooms for special education programs.

DeLilli said P-Tech will generate about $70,000 in revenue for the district, and BOCES renting the classrooms adds at least another $50,000 in revenue.

He estimates the bottom line will be the Jansen building will cost much less to operate this fall compared to when it was fully functional as an elementary school before it closed in 2009.

The district website refers to what is going on in Jansen as “experiencing a Renaissance a rebirth as an educational facility that will enhance education for students, provide a hub for innovative education and provide a [new] revenue stream.”

DeLilli said the new Jansen Avenue School is doing fine with the school district continuing to be its “landlord.” He said there is no additional staff required for the Learning Project, as the district uses existing in-house teachers.

He said the Learning Project “kind of spurred” district officials to reopen Jansen.

DeLilli said P-Tech will also not entail new Johnstown teachers. Since Jansen was closed, he said district enrollment has actually leveled off.

The superintendent – who has led school districts in both the Glove Cities – said a community is sometimes measured by its school buildings being opened and thriving, not having “for sale” signs for protracted periods of time on their front lawns.

“One of the most important things is schools,” DeLilli said.