Facing criticism that the group is not progressing fast enough in issuing recommendations on which school should close should the student population drop below a certain threshold, the met Tuesday evening.
While no concrete findings came out of the meeting at the Municipal Center, members appear to be favoring one of two options, closing Newtown Middle School while moving fifth grade back to the elementary schools and turning Reed Intermediate School into one for grades 6, 7 and 8; or closing one of the elementary schools.
The student population has been declining in recent years, and while it has not reached a level yet where a school needs to be closed, officials said they must plan for that possible eventuality. Once the School Facilities Study Ad Hoc Committee presents its findings, the work then shifts to the town to take a look at the facilities from a municipal perspective.
The committee is likely to issue findings that contain in it “tipping points,” which talk about when student populations are projected to reach a certain capacity, which schools should close.
The two scenarios also might be different considering which route officials choose. For instance, if closing an elementary school was the preferred route, that move might be feasible in 2014 given enrollment declines, while closing the middle school might need to wait until 2017, officials said.
Committee members also talked about certain scenarios that would unlikely happen – for instance the closing of Hawley School. Once that building is no longer used as a school for any period of time, it can never be used for educational purposes again due to its permanent noncompliance with the America With Disabilities Act, officials said.
One of the advantages of closing the middle school is that it would avoid the redistricting required should an elementary school be closed. Also, officials believe that Reed Intermediate School is designed in such a way, particularly its common areas, such as the cafeteria and gym, that it can accommodate the additional grades.
At the same time, construction would still be required at the school, officials said. Classrooms would need to be added, given the number of students expected in grades sixth through eighth in the future, Board of Education Chairman Bill Hart said, referring to an
“No where in Chung’s report would we be able to fit three grades,” he said. “We still have 200 more kids.”
Hart said the construction costs associated with adding portable classrooms to Reed complicate the analysis district officials would have to do in order to develop cost estimates for that scenario.
However, committee members said analyzing the middle school costs was key, and that Hart's suggestions of leaving the construction costs out of the analysis and focus solely on the operational costs in order to alleviate the work required by district officials might be worthwhile.
“It seems like we would have to take a shot at what that would look like even if we have to make some assumptions,” committee member Bob Merola said.
At the Tuesday meeting, officials also reviewed numbers the district prepared that took up the scenario of closing down an elementary school, such as Head O’ Meadow School, if Newtown were to go that route.
The savings for the district would be $1.8 million although the net savings for Newtown would fall closer to $1.5 million because the town would still rack up costs associated with maintaining the building.
Committee member Debbie Leidlein said that while the financial analysis makes a compelling case, officials also must examine the educational impacts.
“It is financially sound,” she said. “But just looking at it financially, we would be doing our students a disservice.”
It has been more than a month since the committee met, and the delay in coming up with recommendations has garnered criticism from some officials, such as some members of the Board of Finance, who recently questioned First Selectman Pat Llodra on the delay.
Officials had publicly said the study would wrap up sometime during the spring, although that timetable appears unlikely at this point.
Hart, who said he had a conversation with Llodra on the topic, said it was important the group start formulating its findings.
“A lot of people want us to get to a conclusion,” he said. “We do need to move it along.”
The committee has scheduled another meeting for June 27 to review questions members have regarding the impact of closing the middle school, and the topic may require a follow-up meeting before members are ready to deliberate.