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By Eliza Hallabeck
The Board of Education continued to look at whether to close Newtown Middle School and reconfigure grade levels in the district at its meeting on Tuesday, November 15.
Since the board charged a Future Forecast Committee in February to research school facilities in light of projected declining enrollment, to provide the school board with possible next steps for school facilities usage, and with making a final recommendation and analysis of costs and savings associated, a number of board and committee meetings have included or focused on the topic.
In July the committee presented nine options for closing either NMS or an elementary school to the board. 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 Newtown High School.
At the board’s last meeting, the school board and members of the public toured Newtown High School to see the area of the building that is being considered for housing eighth grade students, potentially starting in the 2018-19 school year, if the board decides to close NMS as a school. A community forum was also held for residents to share their voices on the topic on October 26.
During the public participation portions of this week’s meeting, a number of people voiced concerns with closing a school, questions they want the board to answer before making a decision, as well as support for the current district configuration.
District Business Director Ron Bienkowski and financial analyst Tanja Vadas co-presented two scenarios that outlined the estimated financial impact of either closing NMS as a school and selling the building, or closing the building as a school but maintaining it under the Board of Education budget.
“What we will be discussing is the best and worst case scenario,” said Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr.
Mr Bienkowski said both scenarios represent short-term projections.
“We really thought about looking at these numbers in relation to years one and two moving forward with these scenarios,” said Mr Bienkowski. “There is no consideration given to what potential costs would be if the town took over the building and the town was responsible for the building. This is purely the impact [on] the Board of Education’s budget.”
“Scenario A,” he said, is considered to be, “the best case scenario for the building.” It would have the greatest reduction to the school board budget. It presumes the building would no longer be owned by the Town of Newtown and a roof project repayment to the state would be offset by proceeds from the sale of the building. Based on estimated cost savings associated with closing the school and the costs associated with completing the closure, Mr Bienkowski reported the estimated net savings in the first year of the budget would be $829,690.
“Scenario B,” as presented by Ms Vadas, includes the maintenance costs expected to be associated with the school board maintaining the building while it no longer operates as a school.
“In this scenario the school would be closed. There would really be no use of the building,” Ms Vadas described, adding that the facility could continue to be used for storage.
Annual estimated maintenance costs for the building total about $184,810.
“When we take [the annual maintenance cost] out of the total cost savings of $1.3 million, and we also reduced [it by] the estimated first year costs, we have a net savings to the budget of $775,000. And we are considering that right now as our worst case scenario,” said Ms Vadas.
Repaying the state for the middle school’s roof project would only occur if the building is redirected for nonpublic use, according to the presentation.
Ms Vadas also said the annual savings would continue in following years to be roughly $1.1 million, when compared to keeping the building open as a school, as previously presented to the board.
In later discussion, board member Rebekah Harriman-Stites, who was one of the members of the Future Forecast Committee, reminded those present the possible configuration of having the kindergarten through fifth grade in the elementary schools was found to “immediately cause overcrowding at our elementary schools.” She also shared there were safety concerns around the option of portable classrooms.
Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander said the discussion of closing the middle school came up after “we went through all the options of closing any other school and none of them looked like the thing to do.”
The board, he said, is trying to figure out what to do with its facilities and whether the district needs to have them all.
“As we came through to it, we came up with not being able to close any other facility, so if we were to close the middle school we asked the committee to come back with how best do we do that,” said Mr Alexander.
Board members discussed other aspects of potentially closing NMS as a school and asked Newtown High School Principal Lorrie Rodrigue and Reed Intermediate School Principal Anne Uberti for input at the meeting.
The board discussed the impact closing NMS as a school would have on sports at NHS, traffic at NHS, enrollment at both NHS and Reed, and how the eighth grade students would be included at the high school. Some discussion also included how space would be used if NMS is not closed.
Mr Alexander said the board will continue the discussion and will possibly make a decision on the topic at its next meeting, set for December 6.
Ms Harriman-Stites said the committee looked at suitability and sustainability.
“I think as a board we need to go back to that suitability and sustainability discussion,” Ms Harriman-Stites said, “because this option… I can’t see that it is either suitable or sustainable. And I have a hard time making a decision that would only be sustainable for maybe six years, and [I] haven’t been able to find any research saying that it is actually suitable for our students.”
Educating students, Ms Harriman-Stites continued, is the part the board should focus on.
Over the next ten years, said board member Dan Cruson, Jr, the board could have two potentially “painful discussions,” on whether to renovate NMS or build a new school and potentially redistricting or renovating elementary schools to handle higher enrollment at those grade levels.
“The building needs help, for lack of a better term,” said Mr Cruson.
Later in the meeting, Ms Harriman-Stites pointed out the students at Reed now “are our most vulnerable students.”
“I think no matter how great we think our work around transitions is I cannot see the benefit for any students, let alone that particular group of students,” she said.
Board member John Vouros said his efforts on the board have never been “about the money.” Closing the middle school, he said, has been vetted, but the full educational impact has not been completed.
“You need to understand we have done all of it, except for laying out for you what classes your children would take should this happen,” said Mr Vouros.
The impact closing NMS would have on his own tax bill, Mr Vouros said, makes it “ludicrous” to consider the option.
“Whatever the decision is of this board, I suggest strongly that when all of this goes to budget time that you are out in full force,” Mr Vouros said, “because, and I am saying it publicly, I do not want to be held hostage by any other board for the decision that the Board of Education is making.”
Mr Cruson said he hopes if the decision goes toward not closing the middle school, information from the discussion can be utilized. He also said no matter what the board decides he hopes enhancement will be possible.
While he said he is not in favor of closing NMS, board member Andrew Clure said he does appreciate the input everyone has shared on the topic.
Board Vice Chair Michelle Ku said she appreciates the time everyone involved has spent over the last two years researching the topic of declining enrollment and school use.
“It has been such a thorough process and I really appreciate that,” she said.