Public hearing on Parker School building project set for Oct. 5 (video included)

Parker School. (Photo Source: Kevin L. Smith).

The city of Cortland Common Council will hold a public hearing at its Oct. 5 meeting for the approval of a proposed childhood education center located at a vacant school building on Madison Street.

The hearing sets up a vote that would decide the fate of the project going forward.

The proposed childhood education center would be operated by the local YWCA and the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO), providing childcare services as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs. 

Currently, all those service offerings run through the YWCA at their Here We Grow site at 16 Miller St., and by CAPCO at their 236 S. Main St. location. 

The newly proposed facility would bring all childhood education services under one roof. It is located at the Alton B. Parker Elementary School site, which shut its doors to students in 2017 when the Cortland Enlarged City School District (CESCD) consolidated school facilities. 

At Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, mayor Brian Tobin reopened the ongoing discussion surrounding the project. Tobin is married to the YWCA’s executive director Kelly Tobin.

Mayor Tobin said the next meeting in early October will partially serve as a public hearing to gather community input, while also allowing for council vote to approve the purchase of the Parker school building. If successful, the council will also vote on approval for the city to submit a request for proposals for architects and engineers to look at the building and determine the course of action when it comes to repairs and construction.

Mayor Tobin said some classrooms within the building shouldn’t require much work in order to be functional for childcare programs, giving a potential start date for the center sometime in September of next year. 

Council members and childcare advocates spoke of the importance of these services to the community during Tuesday’s meeting.

“This past year has been a time when a lot of us have been looking at our privilege, and affordable, quality child care should not come down to your privilege,” said councilperson Katy Silliman (D-2nd Ward). “It should not come down to your ability to pay more money for a better situation.” 

Silliman urged other members of the council to support the project, noting that childcare has become an “all-hands-on-deck” endeavor for families in the city. 

“You can’t be counting on grandma or mom and dad to take care of your children anymore,” she said. “As a community, we need to support childcare.” 

Silliman noted the project should be a priority for the city, adding as a teacher, she sees the effects of a lack of childcare in some of her students.

“I see the effects for kids who come from homes where no one reads to them or they don’t have exposure to early childhood education,” she said. “These days kids are expected to read sooner and do more with less.”

Councilperson John Bennett (D-4th Ward) cited concerns regarding the project’s inability to solve the problem of a lack of childcare in Cortland County.

“YWCA and CAPCO have said from the get-go they won’t be taking additional children under the childcare program from what their precovid numbers were,” he said.

Pre-Pandemic, Kelly Tobin said, the number of children participating in childcare programs sat at 99. Currently, due to hardships brought on by the pandemic, there are approximately 40 children in the programs.

“The point here is that the Parker School site won’t solve the problem of childcare or early childhood education,” Kelly Tobin said. “It is going to allow providers to collect themselves, to rebound back from the pandemic that has changed the landscape of childcare drastically in our community and others that surround us. It is an opportunity to be able to open back up slots that we have closed.”

Bethann Weider, the director of the Head Start program at CAPCO, painted a picture of the dire situation some families in the county find themselves in with a lack of childcare. Weider said there are at least 50 families on a waiting list to join Head Start, a program targeted for low-income families.

“They can’t find it. It is not there,” she said. 

When it comes to the building, the mayor has said at recent council meetings that the building has already had some lighting and roofing work done. The city, he added, has at least $1.3 million in its coffers to continue aiding renovations. 

Former Democratic assemblywoman Barbara Lifton secured $1.1 million of those funds, while the city also received $200,000 from a grant from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council. 

One of the next steps for the project to move forward involves acquisition of the building from CECSD, which was already approved last year via a referendum. County Legislature Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD2) spoke about the support the community has shown for the project.

“We have heard loud and clear over and over again from the community that they wanted to see kids back at Parker School,” he said. “My constituents did not want Parker School to become apartment buildings or businesses, they wanted it to remain a place for children to learn and grow.”

For some, financials on the project are still unknown.

“No one is disputing the need for childcare,” said councilperson Tom Michales (R-8th Ward). “One of the biggest concerns is whether the funding sources are stable enough to support this for five years, and whether we are able to absorb anything that happens to occur that is beyond our control. I’d like to see some updated financials.”

Here is a video of Tuesday's Cortland Common Council discussion on the Parker School building project. (Starts at 0:20:10 and ends at 1:20:40).