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Board of Ed High School Tour Assesses Potential NMS Closure

Published: November 5, 2016

Newtown High School Principal Lorrie Rodrigue led a tour through the high school on Tuesday, November 1, as the Board of Education continued to look at potentially closing Newtown Middle School and reconfiguring grade levels in the district. The board may decide to close a school due to further projected declining enrollment.

“All right, we are going to go this way to the main lobby, and start from there,” said Dr Rodrigue, who led the group through a portion of the school’s A-Wing and B-Wing.

That area of the building is being considered for housing eighth grade students, potentially starting in the 2018-19 school year, if the board decides later this month to close NMS.

The Board of Education is expected to continue looking into the option of closing NMS and may make a decision at its next regular meeting, scheduled for November 15.

Tuesday’s tour of NHS followed an October 26 Community Forum for residents to share their voices on the topic, and an October 19 presentation by the Future Forecast Committee, which spent months researching school use and declining enrollment following a February charge by the school board. The committee had previously presented nine options for closing either NMS or an elementary school to the board, in July. The report also offered a look at not closing any school in the district and the potential use for space. The school board later decided not to close an elementary school, and the committee presented its report on October 19 detailing “Option I,” which would reconfigure the district to have kindergarten through fourth grade in the elementary schools, fifth through seventh grade at Reed Intermediate School, and eighth to twelfth grade at NHS.

While the tour was just starting, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, said the eighth graders would most likely ride the same buses to school as the ninth to twelfth graders. He also said there are enough lockers at NHS to accommodate the eighth grade students.

The first room the group entered on the tour was a double-classroom that can be sectioned off as two rooms. The group later walked up a stairwell to see rooms that may be used as additional science classrooms on the second floor of the A-Wing, but the main portion of the tour was on the first floor. Accommodating the eighth grade at NHS would mean space for four clusters with four teachers each, according to Dr Erardi. Space would also be dedicated to administration, and a discussion on how specials classes would be reworked at NHS would be held if the board chooses to close NMS.

As the group walked from room to room, questions were raised by community members, like whether the area for eighth grade students can be blocked off, how the lunch waves would work, and if eighth graders would be part of yearly events like the full-school pep rally held in the fall. Dr Rodrigue said there may be codes that would prohibit blocking off school corridors, and added the natural foot traffic flow would limit the amount of interaction between eighth graders and the rest of the high school student population.

Roughly 40 people, including district administration and staff and board members, toured the school.

A Fiscal Analysis

District financial analyst Tanja Vadas presented a cost-saving analysis for the closure of NMS.

According to the presentation, the analysis assumed the current seventh and eighth grade teaching models would remain the same throughout the transition, certified staff costs would be reduced by means of natural decline in enrollment and were not included in the report, salary costs were taken from the 2016-17 contractual rate, and the report did not include the cost of maintaining the school after it is vacated by the Board of Education, “therefore,” the report reads, “precluding additional cost offsets.”

Ms Vadas said the annual gross cost savings from closing NMS — including a reduction of seven full-time equivalent custodial positions, a part-time nurse position, and 2.3 clerical positions — is estimated at more than $1 million. However, the first year would have estimated associated costs incurred.

“After deducting the costs from the savings, the bottom line shows the net savings to the [Board of Education] budget of approximately $540,000,” said Ms Vadas, focusing on the first year in the report.

She also shared a table to demonstrate the affect on the mill rate and annual property taxes, assuming a static budget with no changes in the first year or consecutive years. A chart in the presentation showed the taxes for a home with a market value of $400,000 would be reduced, when compared to the cost of keeping the school open, by roughly $50 the first year the school is closed and by roughly $100 the following years. However, Ms Vadas reminded those present that the estimates reflect the change of closing a school and no other potential changes to the annual budget in other areas.

Ms Vadas also spoke about $650,000 of building projects and more than $7 million of Capital Improvement Plan projects slated for the next few years, and the potential cost avoidance for those projects, depending on how the school building is used once closed. Other considerations include the potential of repaying the state $781,642 for the NMS roof project and a potential need for additional parking at both NHS and Reed Intermediate School.

Dr Erardi said the main questions the board needs to ask itself before making its decision is whether to close NMS or not, whether it would retain the building if the school is closed, and if the school is closed whether it should be returned to the town.

“I think those are really your three options,” said Dr Erardi. “My strong suggestion would be that the board is prepared at the final conversation to answer both parts of question two and three, if that is the direction the board is going [toward.]”

Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander clarified that the fiscal analysis provided by Ms Vadas was based on the assumption of closing the school and returning it to the town.

“We don’t get anywhere near this monetary benefit by just closing it and holding on to it,” said Mr Alexander.

During the public participation portion of the evening, Lynn Edwards, the NMS PTA president, spoke on behalf of all seven of the district’s PTAs/PTSA presidents when she read a statement, “We believe the educational success, health, and well-being of our students should be kept in the forefront of these discussions. We hold that it is incumbent on the Board of Education to strive to provide each student in Newtown an environment in which he or she is inspired to excel and thrive, not only intellectually, but socially and emotionally as well.”

The statement went on to question whether Option I is in the best interest of the students and town.

“We urge the [Board of Education] to maintain focus in this decision on providing the best possible school community for our children to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally, particularly for those in grade five through eight who will be most affected by this change.” Ms Edwards continued reading.

Dr Erardi also shared some updates with the school board at the meeting. The district is continuing its search to fill an assistant principal position at NHS, left open by Jaime Rivera being hired as the principal of Wamogo Regional High School in Litchfield. There were more than 100 applicants for the position, and Dr Erardi said a final candidate should be presented to the board for final approval within the next month.

The NHS athletic director position search has been narrowed down to four candidates, according to Dr Erardi, and a final candidate for that position will also be presented to the board for final approval around November 15.

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