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School Board Investigates Elementary Facilities, Enrollment



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School Board Investigates

Elementary Facilities, Enrollment

By Eliza Hallabeck

At the start of the Board of Education’s Tuesday, October 2, meeting, Chair Debbie Leidlein said she recently asked the superintendent to look at conducting a study on whether the district is using its elementary schools efficiently.

Later, as the meeting’s first public participation was underway, it became clear that many members of the audience on Tuesday were there to express concerns that Head O’ Meadow Elementary School was being looked into as a possible school to close if enrollment numbers decrease.

“It was simply a request for information,” said Ms Leidlein, “and we are in the very early stages of investigation into how we are using our facilities.”

When doing her own preliminary look into the topic, Ms Leidlein, responding to a public participant later, said she used Head O’ Meadow to calculate whether an elementary school could close due to it being the smallest of Newtown’s four schools and it being compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) codes, making it easier to open after being closed if enrollment numbers go up in the future.

Over the last five to six years Ms Leidlein said there has been a decline of about 490 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

“As the body that sits and makes decisions as to how taxpayer dollars are being used to provide the best education for our students in our town, I wanted to make sure that we did not leave any stone unturned,” said Ms Leidlein.

Ms Leidlein also apologized for any confusion there has been in the district as a result of this effort, and said, “There is no decision with regard to any school closure being made here tonight. The decision that is going to be discussed and possibly made here tonight is a decision about whether or not we will hire a consultant to help us look at how we use our facilities.”

Some of the public participation speakers asked the school board to focus on whether closing a school would be cost-effective, whether it would serve the best educational interests of Newtown’s students, to look into the “healthiness” of each of the elementary school buildings, and asked for the board to take into account the love Head O’ Meadow community members have for their school.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said she began by looking at how the district’s 1,657-pupil elementary population would fit if Head O’ Meadow school was closed. There are many factors to consider, she said, including the individual grade populations and where students live. Dr Robinson then contacted fellow superintendents in the area who had overseen studies regarding closing a school, and she said the average time it took to close a school was two years.

Recommending the school board put out a request for proposal (RFP) that would look into the feasibility of closing a school while using enrollment projections, Dr Robinson also shared some examples of other districts’ RFPs.

“When you are doing a physical change like this, there is a community value that has to be considered,” Dr Robinson added, saying whoever is hired to do the eventual study should be able to gauge the community’s response.

Keith Alexander reminded his fellow BOE members of a unanimous vote it made in April to accept the recommendation of an Ad Hoc Facilities Committee. That recommendation was for the school board to commission an enrollment study in 2013, to begin the process of closing a school when enrollment is projected to drop below 1,500 for the following school year, and, subject to a feasibility study to be compiled, that Reed Intermediate School be the school closed.

“I bring this up,” Mr Alexander said, “because we are about a year ahead of this particular schedule that we all agreed to.”

Ms Leidlein said if the average length of a feasibility study is two years, it behooves the board to start the process now.

“I feel that at this point in time, with everything that has been going on, that we really owe it to the community to look at this,” said Ms Leidlein.

Board member Richard Gaines, who served on the Ad Hoc Facilities Committee, said a lot of time and effort was put into that study and its recommendation.

“I think that we are jumping on this at this point in time while we are struggling to find money to provide educational services to our students. I wonder where we are going to come up with money to pay for a study that is unbudgeted while we are severely cramped with our finances for this year,” said Mr Gaines.

Dr Robinson estimated a feasibility study on closing a school could cost $18,000, based on one of the district’s she spoke with, and a new study on projected enrollment could cost $10,000.

After discussing a timeline of how long an RFP would take to develop with Dr Robinson, Ms Leidlein estimated the school board will have a draft to approve by next month, with the school board taking the cost of a feasibility study into account for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Following that, as Mr Gaines explained, the study could be performed next year, and that could take two years to complete. The school board would then possibly make a decision in three years based on the study and enrollment.

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