BRIDGEWATER — Furious over a school board budget vote, residents and officials in this town of 1,800 are talking secession from their regional school district.

Regional School District 12 has undergone a steep enrollment decline as the population dwindles in Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater. But in Bridgewater, with just 40 students expected in Burnham Elementary School next year, the decline has been steepest.

Last week, the school board approved Superintendent Patricia Cosentino’s proposed budget, which calls for further grade mergers in Burnham. If approved by voters May 2, the budget will leave just two classes in Burnham; one with kindergarten through second-grade students, the other, a combination of third- through fifth-grade students.

But the proposal has sparked a frenzy in Bridgewater.

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School proposals

In 2014 the school board attempted to merge all three elementary schools into a new building in Washington. The proposal was defeated at referendum.

In 2015, the board combined kindergarten and first-grade classes in Burnham.

In 2016 Cosentino proposed adding Burnham’s second-grade class to the K-1 group, but parents balked. In December, Burnham parents accepted a K-2 grouping.

In May, if the budget is approved by voters, Burnham will have two classes of merged grades.

“They’re trying to shove something down our throat that’s a total experiment, not at all vetted,” said First Selectman Curtis Read. “It’s come time to play a little hardball.”

Read said his office has been filled with residents asking him to withdraw from the regional district since the school board vote. At least one family put their home on the market.

“If the parents start pulling their kids, we’re done,” Read said.

Board member Alan Brown of Bridgewater described Monday’s vote as another blow pushing Burnham toward closure in a “cycle of attrition.”

One year there aren’t enough students to justify expenses, so administrators merge grades and cut staff, he said. Residents send their children elsewhere and people looking for a home pass the town by, so there are fewer students and administrators, accordingly, make more cuts.

“We’re always reacting to attrition and then causing more attrition,” he said.

Parents argue the decision to merge more classes was rushed and the reasoning used to justify it was flawed. They also complain that Washington-based board members, who have half the seats on the 12-member board, are too careless about turning an award-winning elementary school in Bridgewater into a “two room schoolhouse.”

“We ought to be acting regionally, not as islands in the region,” Read said. “We haven’t been doing that.”

Cosentino counters that her staff is forced to make hard decisions in an era of low enrollment. And Valerie Andersen, a board member from Washington, said it would be “fiscally and educationally unconscionable” to have five teachers in Burnham for 40 students.

Town officials from Washington echo Andersen. Cuts at Burnham are needed, they say.

Burnham supporters say they recognize the school’s enrollment problems, but the board makes rash staff-cut proposals in budgets and doesn’t explore other options.

Luring newcomers

The administration could send Washington students to Burnham or advertise the region to out-of-district families, said Carolan Dwyer, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. Board members could further lower the cost for families to send their children to the district, she said.

Several years ago, the board cut tuition costs in half for out-of-district students, to $7,500 a year, hoping parents in other districts would send their kids to Region 12.

But that’s not enough, Dwyer said; the district still isn’t competitive with nearby schools. So the Burnham PTO and the town of Bridgewater created scholarships that lower tuition for school attendees to just $5,000 annually and instituted a “guerrilla marketing team” that, for example, sent mailers to New Milford families after John Pettibone Elementary School closed.

Last year, the town lifted its long-standing alcohol prohibition and allowed the opening of a restaurant — its first — in part to lure young families to move in.

In the past three years, school officials have put Burnham on the chopping block several times in several ways, Dwyer said, cutting staff or merging grades and once even proposing closing all town elementary schools to build a regional school.

In December, parents agreed that grouping kindergarten, first and second grades was appropriate. But in March, when Cosentino proposed cutting another teacher at Burnham, parents and Bridgewater board members fought back.

But despite their opposition, the board approved Cosentino’s budget after hours of fighting. The vote, 7-5, split mostly along town lines: every Washington-based board member approved the cut, while most Roxbury and Bridgewater members voted against it.

Secession difficult

But if Bridgewater decides to go the secession route, it won’t be easy. No town has successfully left its district in recent memory, said Abbe Smith, a Department of Education spokesperson.

To secede, Bridgewater’s selectmen must vote to ask the school board to form a secession study committee which, if created, would make a recommendation within a year. If the committee decides a town’s withdrawal is in order, the question would go to a vote in each of the region’s towns, and all three would have to support it.

Washington Selectman Jay Hubelbank and Roxbury First Selectman Barbara Henry said all three towns are seeing enrollment declines, and leaving the district is not the answer.

“From a fiscal and education perspective, it’s what you gotta do,” Hubelbank said.

The districtwide consolidation proposed in 2014 was intended to avert this situation, said Washington board member Peter Tagley. But Bridgewater and Roxbury voted it down by large margins.

“The town of Washington offered Bridgewater and Roxbury a way to resolve all these issues by putting everybody under one roof,” he said. “You refused. You need to change, not me.”

Citing Tagley’s sentiment, Read said, it’s time to look for answers to outside of the school board.

“The bottom line is Burnham needs to stay open for the town,” he said. “We lose the school? Maybe we’ll lose the post office? Maybe our store? At some point we ask ourselves ‘what are we?’

“We’re a stop sign,” he said.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton