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Committee Discusses School Closing Options

The Newtown School Facilities Study Ad Hoc Committee meets Tuesday evening to weigh options should enrollment drop warrant the closing of a school

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.

Douglas Brennan June 01, 2011 at 05:23 PM
If this were the "Race to the Top" which is really a program run by a government that does not have the money to fund a real program, therefore it similar to a "box top, candy, wrapper promotion," we would close the worst performing school. That would be HOM or Middle Gate. Alternatively we could move language instruction to the grammar schools (better for the kids) and move fifth grade to the grammar schools and we would get better results. The 5/6 school has proven to be another idea not generated by sound educational policy but rather by the path of least resistance. "When will they ever learn, when.... will they.... ever learn"
Sam Mihailoff June 01, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Now, of course this was a directive given to Superintendent Robinson OVER ONE YEAR AGO, and it is so heartening to see such a rapid response to that directive. Goes right along with "our lofty goals" (a televised quote by Janet, which if not so indicative of the incompetence would actually be funny) I envision Newtown Logic to run something like this: 1- replace Middle School roof and HVAC units 2- close Middle School 3- move 7th grade to Reed 4- move 8th grade to NHS 5- build addition to Reed 6- oh heck, why not...a third addition to the high school
Sam Mihailoff June 01, 2011 at 08:06 PM
Doug, not only is the 5/6 not the best educational idea, the entire Middle School philosophy is now being questioned after a lengthy critique by educators.( you know them, the ones who are hands on). Not that we should return to the one-room schoolhouse but the K-8 schools of yore are once again being looked at as a very good model for a number of reasons...socialization, interaction, participation, planning, documentation, observation of needs and growth, peer modeling. But we live in a vacuum of "cloning". This is why "lead teachers" exist. Every teacher therefore can teach the same thing the same way, at the same time...limits chance of a good or bad teacher this way...also no go-getters striving for a heightened paradigm either...Everything is bland and grey.
Alex Tytler June 01, 2011 at 08:14 PM
Whichever school is closed should be immediately demolished so that we have to build a new one in two or three years. Of course this kind of news doesn't surface during budget season. We are being manipulated.
Sam Mihailoff June 01, 2011 at 09:23 PM
Eric, It most certainly did surface during the budget season. At a LC meeting (taped for posterity), the question was posed to Janet as to the progress, conclusions of the directive issued the year PRIOR.....Janet said nothing and Mr. Hart replied to the LC that er, ah, cough, NOTHING HAS BEEN DONE
Cathy Maitland June 02, 2011 at 12:03 AM
This makes me so angry. My thoughts go back to the night that Janet Robinson addressed the BOE regarding the high school addition. Charts that looked like pikes peak were shown to the audience and a rapid increase in enrollment "had to be addressed". "We need 44 million dollars to be approved so that this project can move forward and abbreviate dangerous overcrowding". Like lemurs we marched to the polls and voted yes. Now we realize that Janet was holding the chart up side down. We need a superintendent with vision that looks farther down the road not just to the end of her nose.
Deborra Zukowski June 02, 2011 at 01:24 AM
The demographers(e.g., Dr. Chung) suggest that their projections be reviewed every 2-3 years, because economics have a huge influence on projections. The first set of projections (2008) likely came in high, since they were extending a housing boom out 20 plus years. The second set of projections (2010) are likely low, since they are extending a record-breaking recession out 10 years. Basically right now, there are too many student in all schools to shut a school (re: Bill Hart's excellent analysis). I agree with Ms. Leidlen (sp??) that we need plans and more importantly, need a "trigger" for when to activate those plans. While it's possible we could just set a timeline in place, e.g., to close a school in 2014/2017, doing so without correcting for the actual student population would be unwise.
Deborra Zukowski June 02, 2011 at 01:28 AM
My apologies to Debbie Leidlein for misspelling her name.
Tom Bittman June 02, 2011 at 02:09 AM
The overcrowding was occurring at the high school, while the enrollment decline is starting at Kindergarten, and affects the elementary schools. In fact, the high school population isn't projected to decline much at all for the next seven years - basically how long it will take for the smaller enrollments reach high school. We needed to solve the space problem at the high school. I think we're getting a double-whammy - a growth boom in Newtown (that the town fostered, attracting more residents), followed by an economic crash. The faucet turned off, hitting the elementary schools, and the town is aging. This might continue, or maybe the economy will improve, and the faucet will turn on again. Hopefully it doesn't explode again - Newtown still has a lot of buildable land. And maybe, one day, we'll learn that demographic consultants can only predict accurately for a handful of years, and aren't worth the money we spend on them.
Debbie Leidlein June 02, 2011 at 05:39 AM
Happens all the time. No worries!
Out Door John June 02, 2011 at 09:58 PM
At least someone in town recognizes the talent and vision of Ms. Leidlein! One day the BOE will realize how important a member she really is!
Sam Mihailoff June 03, 2011 at 12:58 AM
Oh, there are many of us who acknowledge Debbie's selfless devotion to the STUDENTS as part of the BOE and have acknowledged such directly to her. Perhaps you are correct though. With all my discontent with those at the helm, I have not acknowledged Mrs. Leidlein publically enough.
Dilma June 03, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Why was my comment deleted? I'm new to this - did I do something wrong?
Hoa Nguyen June 03, 2011 at 06:24 PM
Hi Dilma, thanks for writing back. We've had to establish some ground rules on Newtown Patch given some of the comments that have resulted and two of those rules are no name calling and no making fun of someone. It was a hard call when it came to your post because 99% of it was acceptable but there was a word choice in there that might have been construed as falling into one of the categories listed above. I cannot, nor would I want to, edit comments so it was a choice of removing it or letting it stand. In order to try to be fair, that comment was removed. It was nothing personal but I do try to be even handed. Please contact me at hoa@patch.com if there are any concerns that you would not rather post here. Thank you.
Dilma June 03, 2011 at 06:41 PM
OK. I don't have my post, but I don't remember name-calling or making fun of anyone - I was making serious. And I was only talking about the people who we get to vote for or against in a few months. I thought this was a good place to talk about it. Could you email me the word choice problem? I've watched Patch for a long time, and I took a lot of time to put my thoughts together, and to just have that deleted makes me think I should just stay out of it and read posts by others, including anonymous town party leaders who post praise about their candidates, like Out Door John.
Hoa Nguyen June 03, 2011 at 06:51 PM
Apologies Dilma. I have just e-mailed you.
Dilma June 03, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Thank you Ms. Nguyen. Sometimes how this town runs can make you crazy. Debbie is one of the good ones. We need more like her who can work well with others even when they don't agree, and fewer demagogues, career politicians, power-mongers, press-seekers, party hacks, out-to-wins. The education board is a mixed bag with mixed ideas, and that represents Newtown - better than the other boards. The finance board are a bunch of guys who know finance, but like to hold court, try to run more than they're responsible for, and seem to want to do this forever (are they republicans or democrats? who knows - maybe we need term limits, at least for long-term chair Kortze). We've got people out for blood, like Nanavaty and Jacob, people who can't get along like Fetchick, a republican-dominated legislative council. More Llodra, more Leidlein, more Hart, more people who want to serve Newtown and not themselves, and less of those people who want to be power brokers, impress their parents or their party or their friends or something. We'll see if the half-dead DTC can put good candidates up, if the RTC will start to open up to new blood even if they aren't buddies at the country club (that attitude is why IPN started - the RTC could kill IPN if they just opened up), and if IPN can attract people who are talented but not RTC or DTC enough for the backroom brokers, and willing to take the partisan heat. I'm not sure yet about IPN - if they keep telling us to vote "no" I'm going to scream!
Desiree Galassi June 04, 2011 at 03:39 AM
Interesting p.o.v, Dilma and I have to say you are not too far off. After 24 years of being a Republican I decided to be "unaffiliated". I comfortably vote for Democrats, IPN and Republican or whomever I believe will really do what's in the best interest for the town. But be rest assured, I have witnessed the occasional "good one" of which you speak claw their way into their political position by slowly diss-associating themselves publicly with anyone who was not from their...a-hem... "party". It's a challenge to walk that line but folks like the DTC's Lyddy, for example, act like true gentlemen unafraid to be seen with anyone from any party, answer questions to the best of their ability and navigate the political waters with kindness. These are the kinds of leaders that have my respect even when we do not agree on topics. Term limits. Now there's a good topic for charter revision.
Douglas Brennan June 04, 2011 at 11:49 AM
We now face a dilema. We are being asked to vote for a new roof and massive air conditioning and heating project at the middle school yet we do not have a strategic plan in place. So should we make a $5 million dollar investment in a facility that may get closed? Is the design of the HVAC system the proper one if the use is not a middle school? So the delay and failure for the BOE to have this completed in a timely manner creates a $ 5 million dollar issue for the Town.
Carla Kron June 04, 2011 at 02:24 PM
My general understanding from attending town meetings is that the middle school should be "fixed" regardless of its future of a school. It would then become available for another use. (Although I am not sure what that other use is.)
Desiree Galassi June 04, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Let's remember that these issues just didn't creep up overnight but are a now apparent product of years of bandaid solutions that are very difficult to rectify and that are the responsibility of the community's as a whole, not just the BOE. Who we elect and what they represent is within our power as citizens. Elected and appointed volunteers seem to be the easy targets when the real culprits are those who don't bother to vote or be engaged in the discourse that affects the well being of our town. Only 1000 or so people took the FFH survey in a town of 25,000 ( ok, about 20,ooo if you take out the kids), not to mention the voter turnout at referendums that potentially skews the true representation of the community's best interest. So here are my two cents; the middle school is a prime piece of Newtown real estate that should be optimally maintained and kept marketable for...whatever....even potential lease. There is no worse stigma than a vacant building of that size right smack in the center of town. As an investor I would be wary to bring my business to town or buy real estate with a frozen decaying monolith as the town's centerpiece. Back to Dilma's point our collective town wide issues are crying out for solution oriented (and not antagonistic/stagnant) leaders who are able to speak with and engage creative thinking people outside of their little cliques. Less MEOW, more WOW.
Hoa Nguyen June 04, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Look for a story on Monday regarding a debate that continues to brew regarding the Newtown Middle School roof project, including estimates the Public Building and Site Commission is expected to recommend to the Board of Finance during a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to discuss the roof project. Have a great weekend everyone. Also be sure to check the site tomorrow for our slate of columnists: George Stockwell, Suzy DeYoung and Adria Henderson.
Sandy Hook June 05, 2011 at 11:18 AM
The Middle School looks like the town dump inside. It's embarrassing. Buckets collecting water in the gym on a regular rainy day. It needed a new roof last year; should we just let water drip from all over? What if it snows a lot next winter? The roof is needed now, whether of not it is a school in 5 or 10 years.
Douglas Brennan June 05, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Dear Sandy Hook: Of course a new roof is required. My point is that you would not design the HVAC system the same way if it were to be a leased office building or a senior center or a computer server center or whatever else other then a Middle School. So since we do not have a plan we may spend money on the wrong things. This is not whether we need a new roof bet whether we spend money to cool a cafeteria that will not be used as a cafeteria. Or whether we spend money based on form following function or whether we just build something that we may be able to put to use some day, iefficently and ineffectively.
cathy sullivan June 06, 2011 at 09:01 PM
I find it incredible that this information surfaces AFTER the referendum was passed with an increase in the school budget. I know that in order to keep the status quo requires an increase, even in these difficult times. However, if you are going to start closing schools perhaps the savings should have been included in the budget. I wonder where the BOE membeers AND JR went to grade school? Good Lord, I hope it wasn't in Newtown because they don't seen to unerstand addition and subtraction very well.
cathy sullivan June 06, 2011 at 09:04 PM
I moved here from the Philadelphia area in 1979 and they were putting a new roof on the Sandy Hook school at that time. I've always wondered why they put FLAT ROOFS on schools in a climate where it snows often. Check out Philadelphia where even Billy Penn is on a peaked roof.
Douglas Brennan June 07, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Dear Ms. Sullivan: The last school we built the 5/6 school has a sloped roof. The architects originally designed it with a flat roof. I went to one of the meetings and indicated to them that the project would not go forward if the roof was not changed. Joe Borst and I were on the Leg Council at that time. This got the roof changed along with about 12 other suggestions that saved money and improved the quality of the building. The problem is that we often have people on Boards that are unaware of the consequences of their decisions. They also originally wanted to put vinyl siding on the building. Imagine how many times it would have cracked and bowed on such a large building. I think that the credit for eliminating that goes to Margaret Hull. Anyway many times the "experts" don't know and they just want to get past the meeting. Look at the High School rebid as a good example. You need to intelligently question the so called experts because many times they are merely following the Agenda of someone directing them from the Board.
Out Door John June 10, 2011 at 12:42 PM
Hey Douglas, quit beating your own chest! We don't care what you did in the past, we care what you are going to do in the near and distant future with the school buildings, etc. What do you think is the result of all those buckets on the floor in the school right now? Can you say, "big mold build up" which will surely impact all of the students who attend that school. Are you ready for the injury suits the parents may file if their child has a major respiratory attack which can be attributed to the air quality in the building. And, by the way, who cares what kind of AC system is put in as long as it fixes the roof and takes care of the current and future students! If the BOE decided to close this building at some futrue juncture it will be up to the new tenant to redistribute the AC requirements. As it is now who would want a building, right in the middle of town, that has a roof leak and bad environment control? Don't you think the value of the building would be enhanced if it were up to snuff?
Douglas Brennan June 10, 2011 at 01:25 PM
Dear John: I am sorry that I merely provided the history of the actual events. Dan Cruson would say it was the historical record. I would say it was the histerical record. Imagine listening to the lies of the "experts" when they said the original design of the 5/6 school had a sloped roof. You must not be a techincal person. You are most likely someone that says "just spend the money" Will you be the first to complain when the AC that you spent a few million dollars on was not necessary. Will you still be in Town to pay the bill or will you leave the rest of us to pay for your short sighted ideas? Unlike buying lollypops you are spending capital dollars and choosing to pay for this expenditure for an extended period of time. Let us say twenty years. So your must have foresight rather then just be someone that says well "the experts told us that this was the best way to go" It is hard to use your brain. It takes time, education and skills. As to beating my own chest I thank you for your feedback. Perhpas patting myself on the back would have been a more reasonable attack. Please do not park your brain at the door and succumb to infantile solutions, not explore alternatives and the rush to do something rather then the right thing. Doing and commenting on doing the right thing takes time and effort. Not jsut some silly kindergarten argument about breathing difficulties (which I take very seriously as I am severly impacted by molds and poor air quality).

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