Declining student enrollment provides unique challenges in each school district
Published 3:51 pm, Wednesday, June 26, 2013
The New Milford school district last week became the third one in the area in the past few weeks to take a major step toward establishing a new game plan for the use of its school facilities.
Declining school enrollments in this part of the state have most districts taking a hard look at their existing buildings and asking questions about their future use.
In this area, only Danbury continues to see its student population grow.
We believe frank, open discussion on this issue is much needed, as districts have an obligation to weigh economic factors, along with student welfare and quality education.
The recommendation comes as a bit of a surprise, given the amount of public opposition aired in recent months to closing Pettibone, which currently serves as a K-3 elementary school.
The committee's recommendation, made June 19, came two days after a controversial decision by the Region 12 Board of Education to seek approval from the state and from the voters for a new regionalization plan for the member towns of Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury.
According to that plan -- which received the support of just five of 11 school board members, along with two "no" votes and four abstentions -- the district would close the elementary schools in all three towns and build a new, consolidated pre-K-to-5 school on its Shepaug Valley school campus in Washington.
The proposal, expected to go to the voters in the fall, would also include renovation of the existing Shepaug Valley Middle/High School on that campus.
Last month, Newtown reached a consensus on the emotional issue of what to do with its old Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down Dec. 14 in an unspeakable tragedy.
The Sandy Hook Task Force spent months considering a few dozen options before ultimately -- and appropriately, we think -- agreeing the school should be razed and a new one built on the current school property.
The state is expected to provide up to $50 million for the new facility.
In Ridgefield, too, discussions have been held regarding space-use issues, and that process is scheduled to resume in January.
The reality is there is no one solution that would work for every school district, as each one has its own unique set of challenges.
New Milford, for example, is geographically the largest town in Connecticut and, if Pettibone were to be closed, that would leave the town with just two elementary schools, half as many as Newtown, which has similar student enrollment.
The debate over closing Pettibone -- or seeking another solution -- will continue in September and is expected to bring out strong arguments on both sides of the issue.
Newtown was in the process of looking at how it should deal with declining enrollment when the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred, so its priorities have changed dramatically.
Region 12 faces a whole different set of issues. The district has a long history of division over whether there should be three local elementary schools or one consolidated school, and the divided vote on the school board last week confirms that such division continues.
If the local elementary schools were to be closed, that would make Bridgewater and Roxbury the only towns in the state without a school within their borders -- a prospect that does not sit well with many residents in those two small towns.
In all of these school districts, as well as others that will be dealing with their own version of school facility issues in the near future, we offer this advice to residents: Get involved.
The schools belong to the residents, and it is critical they take an active role in the decision-making.