School board must take time to get it right
Students' welfare, not just money, must be weighed in proposed school closing
Published 12:24 pm, Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Like many school districts in this part of the state, New Milford is faced with a declining student population and increasing per pupil expenditures.
Those are significant problems, and they deserve thoughtful consideration and an enlightened solution.
Right now, the proposal on the Board of Education table is to close John Pettibone School on Pickett District Road, the oldest and most centrally located of New Milford's three K-3 elementary schools; to redistrict for the younger children; and to reconfigure the grade structure at four of the five remaining schools.
We have not yet been convinced closing Pettibone would be the best solution -- in the short term or the long term -- and neither have several school board members or the majority of residents who have spoken up at meetings over the past several months.
We believe far too much emphasis is being put on how much money the town can save by closing Pettibone and not enough thought is being given to the potential impact of such action on the welfare, safety and education of the children in New Milford's school system.
We believe the members of the Board of Education, two-thirds of them newly elected in November, owe it to the students, the school community and the public to fully discuss and carefully weigh the educational component -- not just the financial windfall -- of the proposed school closure.
We believe there are numerous important questions that need to be answered before the school board makes this critical decision, which will have far-reaching and long-lasting results.
In what ways, if any, would closing Pettibone improve the quality of education in New Milford? Or is it all about saving money?
How much, if any, of the projected $679,497 first-year net operating savings would be turned back to the school district to enhance educational quality? And if the answer is none, then how do the students in the town's school benefit from this action?
What impact, if any, would the redistricting have on the young kids who would be sent to different schools?
From an educational standpoint, which is the preferred grade configuration -- the current K-3 at Pettibone, Hill and Plain and Northville, 4-6 at Sarah Noble Intermediate School, 7-8 at Schaghticoke Middle School or the proposed K-2 at Hill and Plain and Northville, 3-5 at Sarah Noble and 6-8 at Schaghticoke?
If indeed a grade 6-8 configuration is superior for students to 7-8, why were townspeople told during a building project less than 20 years ago that it was better not to have little sixth-graders in the same school with older, more experienced seventh- and eighth-graders?
And if it's not better, then why, especially in this age of greater awareness about bullying, is the board even considering moving sixth-graders to SMS?
How reliable are the enrollment projections? Can New Milford really be certain the town -- the geographically largest in the state and second most affordable in the area to Danbury -- won't have another growth spurt when the economy improves?
Does the town really want to sell Pettibone and put itself in the position where it might have to build another school in 10 or 15 years -- and spend far more millions of dollars than it ever saved in operating costs?
Why not keep Pettibone open, close down and sell off the administration building on East Street, move the administrative staff into excess space in one of the other schools, and buy time for the town to see whether the student enrollment projections are accurate?
New board member John Spatola hit the nail on the head at last week's meeting when he observed "there is a human side to closing a school" and encouraged his colleagues to "find a balance" between their obligations to the taxpayers and their responsibilities to the students.
We agree. And we urge the Board of Education to take all the time it needs to answer all the unanswered questions, to act in the best interest of the school district, and to get it right.