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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.

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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