The seed of what could be a promising idea has been planted in Region 12.

Shepaug Valley School principal Kim Gallo is among those bringing it toward fruition.

"We're moving forward on applying to be the 20th agriscience program in Connecticut," Gallo said Tuesday, Nov. 4. "Nonnewaug High School (in neighboring Woodbury) has 23 towns in its catchment area and cannot accommodate all of the students from those towns who apply for its agriscience program."

For a school district hungry for more students to enrol, this could be a step in the right direction.

Bill Davenport, Nonnewaug's agriscience program director, has been looking for a comparable high school to offer the program.

Gallo was an administrator at Nonnewaug before coming to Region 12 in 2010, so it was natural they would discuss his goal, Davenport said.

"On average, we have a minimum of 120 applicants and only room for 55 to 60 students given the size of our high school," he said.

"The interest is there. The agriculture jobs are there. And we're saying no to students in the eighth grade. It's not right."

Both Gallo and Davenport stress the planning for Shepaug Valley School stepping into that role is in the very early stages.

Plans would have to be developed. An application must be submitted to the state and then the state legislature must consider Shepaug's application.

If approved, the state would pay for state-of-the-art science labs and other amenities necessary for Shepaug to offer the agriscience program.

"We'd love to be welcoming our first freshmen class in 2018-19, but realistically I think we're looking at 2019-20 at least," Gallo said.

"We're looking to other school systems that might send students here to determine what the interest is. But we're very excited."

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino is "thrilled" to have this opportunity.

"This could be an answer to our prayers," Cosentino said. "It could save the region going forward into the future."

Region 12 is facing a sharply declining student population. Projections to 2023 anticipate a region-wide decline to just 460 students.

"This is a great opportunity to offer an exciting academic program," Cosentino said, "not only to our region's children, but also to the students we could attract."

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352

Region 12 is struggling to improve the school district's image, both within the towns of Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater, as well as around the state.

As it considers its next steps, public relations firms are being considered to help.

The region has undergone two years of upheaval as the school administration and Board of Education attempted to find a solution to the shrinking student population, aging facilities and rising education costs.

Referendum after referendum failed as plans to consolidate the elementary grades in one new facility and to repair and renovate the middle/high school were roundly rejected by the voters.

Two public relation firms were on hand Monday, Oct. 6 to offer presentations how they would enhance and promote the district's image.

Sharon Danosky of Danosky Associates and David Clark of VisualImpact in Danbury gave a joint presentation how their two firms would work together to achieve the region's goals.

They proposed six months of focus groups, surveys and other outreach to decide how to best communicate with the public.

The cost would be $35,000.

"We work with the premise of `Think, Feel, Do,'" Danosky said. "We find out what people think, know or understand about the region. How people feel or respond to the schools. Then determine what specific action you want people to take and promote that."

Ann Baldwin of Baldwin Media Marketing in Newington had a more direct approach.

A former NBC affiliate newscaster, Baldwin offered to use her media savvy and contacts to spread an enhanced image of the district's schools.

She would be the "point person," arranging press conferences and scripting and filming segments on the highlights at Shepaug Valley School, the district's middle/high school.

Her cost would be $2,200 monthly on a renewable 30-day contract.

"My specialty is working with schools," Baldwin said. "I know how the media operates, what stories they are looking for. I need to know what your priorities are, then we'll get your message out unfiltered."

Following the presentations, Board of Education members were deadlocked on which firm to hire.

A motion to hire Baldwin failed, 5-5.

A motion to hire Danvosky Associates/VisualImpact was tabled until the next board meeting on Oct. 20.

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino will be asked for input.

"We need to hire a professional to get the information that we are aware of about our schools out to the public," said Alan Brown, the board `svice chairman. "I think Ann Baldwin is going to learn from us what our context is. We don't want more months of focus groups."

"Both firms had some strengths and some weaknesses," said fellow board member Michael Sinatra. "Baldwin is definitely cost effective. But she didn't seem to have the local area down."

"The other firm has worked with schools and businesses we all know," he added, "South Kent School and New Milford Hospital."

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352

By Susan Tuz

The summer was a busy one for Region 12 facilities director Don O'Leary with repairs and painting occurring at all four of the region's schools.

Highlights of the work included:

All elementary classroom were painted and security cameras were installed at the three elementary schools -- Burnham in Bridgewater, Booth Free in Roxbury, and Washington Primary.

At Washington Primary School, the circle driveway was repaved, low-hanging branches trimmed from the bus parking area and outside stairs were repaired.

The heating system was altered with a change from steam to hot water flowing through the pipes, while the same boilers remain. It is believed this will better regulate heat in the classrooms.

Booth Free School is having a new septic field installed at this time, with fencing installed to keep traffic from the leaching fields.

Outside stairs have been repaired and new cabinets installed and painted in all rooms.

At Shepaug Valley School, a number of dead trees were removed, lighting was replaced in the parking area, and the swimming pool room had sound attenuation tiles installed on the ceiling, with new sound attenuation panelling to be installed along the walls.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

The new school year will start Tuesday, Aug. 26 in Region 12.

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino plans to begin it on a positive note.

Cosentino is banking on a new public relations firm's presentations and interaction with the towns to heal the the animosity of the previous two years as region residents debated the school district's future.

"The only way the region can continue on a positive track," Cosentino said Monday, Aug. 18 to the Board of Education, "is to come together on something we all have in common."

"And we have Shepaug Valley School in common," she continued. "We need to decide on the work that has to be done here before the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) review in 2015, and prepare for another referendum requesting funds to do the repairs and renovations."

The accreditation review is scheduled during the 2015-16 school year at Shepaug Valley School, the district's middle/high school.

Outdated science labs and other aspects of the school have to be upgraded before then, Cosentino said.

The region has a sharply declining student population. Enrollment for the 2014-15 school year is anticipated at 749 students.

Cosentino said she is ready to support the Board of Education as it moves the region forward, but "cannot lead the effort again."

She came to the region last year, hired by the board to bring about the consolidation of elementary grades and rejuvenate the middle/high school.

Last spring, a vote to fund building a new consolidated elementary school on the Shepaug campus was soundly defeated.

Funding the renvations and repair at Shepaug Valley School was also shot down with the same vote.

"I've accepted that we will continue to have three elementary schools," Cosentino said. "We need to decide on what options we want to enact to keep them open."

"We are conducting a study on having multi-grade classrooms," she added. "It's the only way to successfully educate and socialize the children."

First selectmen of the three towns, Board of Education members and administrators were to meet Wednesday, Aug. 20 to discuss the future of the region.

A long-range planning committee of board members, and possibly one representative from each town, is expected to be formed.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Hope is still in the air on the part of administrators and the Board of Education about Region 12's future.

However, some residents of Bridgewater are very much on the fence about the town's future in the three-town school district.

A well-attended public hearing Aug. 13 sparked questions whether Bridgewater should leave the region and tuition out its high school students to neighboring school districts or work hard to help keep the region afloat.

Residents Ed Wainwright and Roy Wilkinson have done a study of the possible benefits of tuitioning out older students to neighboring high schools.

They calculate some $3.4 million could be saved annually by closing Shepaug Valley School, the district's middle school and high school in Washington.

"There is in state statute a way for a town to apply to get out of the region," Wainwright said. "The region's and state boards of education would form a committee and review the situation."

"Then the state would have to agree," he opined. "All three towns have to agree through referendum votes."

Alan Brown, a Bridgewater selectman and vice chairman of the Region 12 Board of Education, frowns on Wainwright's plan.

"It would be discouraged," he said. "The state has set it up to make the divorce as difficult as possible. Other regions are teetering, so the state wouldn't want to set a precedent."

First Selectman Curtis Read invited residents to form an ad hoc committee to discuss the town's options.

A retreat would be held including the Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino and the first selectmen of the region's three towns -- Bridgewater's Curtis Read, Roxbury's Barbara Henry and Washington's Mark Lyon.

Read hopes to take with him the thoughts of his town's residents.

"There are issues to consider," Read said. "We voted not to consolidate the elementary grades and not to renovate Shepaug (Valley School) at a cost of $40 million."

"But the administration and, perhaps unwittingly, the Board of Ed allowed the elementary facilities to decline,," he added, "expecting an acceptance of consolidation."

Read said a walk through the three elementary schools by selectmen found Washington Primary and Burnham schools in "somewhat acceptable" shape.

However, Booth Free School in Roxbury "is in terrible shape," he said.

He noted it has a failing septic system, broken stairs and other disrepair.

Cosentino has a more positive outlook.

She has said the result of this springs district votes let everyone know how residents feel.

"Shepaug has great aspects to its program. It's a really special place," Cosentino has said. "And we have to relay that."

Carolan Dwyer, a representative of the ad hoc group, Save Our Schools, wants to work with the administration and education board and take a "business approach."

"In the next year," she said, "I want to see everyone give it their all to bring Shepaug Valley School back to state Blue Ribbon standards."

Brown said the board will hire hire a public relations firm to create an enhanced image of Shepaug Valley School.

"The elementary schools are performing better than Shepaug at this point," Brown said. "The region has a stigma that is not entirely deserved."

"We have a great new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program," he added. "College matriculation from Region 12 is very good. We need to get that word out."

Some residents in Bridgewater are taking steps to bring young families into the town. A brochure and video of the town's finer points are being created for distribution to Realtors.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

The last few months of Region 12's 2013-14 school year could have been sunnier for the school district's administration.

Voters resoundingly rejected consolidation of the elementary school grades into a single building on the Shepaug Valley campus during an April 29 referendum of voters in Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury.

A second defeat was absorbed June 17 when voters rejected funding $8.28 million for renovation and repairs at Shepaug Valley School, the region's middle/high school.

Yet the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino remain undaunted.

"The first referendum had to be held so the board knew people's thoughts on consolidation," Cosentino said Tuesday. "Now we know it isn't wanted by the majority of voters and we can move forward."

The second referendum came at a time when "there was a lot of voter fatigue and backlash from the first referendum," she said.

Cosentino believes the urgency of work needed at Shepaug Valley School wasn't communicated at a time when residents would be receptive.

"I've always felt that a high school is the jewel of any community," Cosentino said. "Shepaug has great aspects to its program. It's a really special place."

"And we have to relay that," she said. "I think the next time the question of funding is put before the voters, it will get a positive response."

Board vice chairman Alan Brown agrees.

The Bridgewater representative faults the school board and administration for concentrating too much on "selling the idea of consolidation" and not enough on relaying how they plan to work together as a team with the region's three towns to see Region 12 not only survives, but thrives.

"We really need to give the public a greater concept of what is needed and why," Brown said. "We are working hard on securing the future of our region."

"Retreats are planned where the board will discuss plans with the towns' selectmen," he added. "Another long range planning committee, likely comprising board members, will be put in place."

Brown said the board is aware of the fatigue much of the region is feeling regarding planning and deciding on the school district's future.

The first step in revitalizing the region arrived Monday when the board slashed out-of-district tuitions, cutting the figure in half.

Tuitions will now be $7,500, starting with the 2014-15 school year.

"Danbury is bursting at the seams. Other districts are looking for solutions," Brown said. "We have to be competitive."

The newly adopted. out-of-district tuition policy was vetted by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

It would give the superintendent purview about a final decision on student admission.

This would assure the region is not overwhelmed by an influx of tuition-paying students, a situation that would drive up operating costs.

The policy also states special-needs students could tuition in at the $7,500 cost but any extra requirements for their schooling beyond the basics offered by the region would be at the parent's expense.

"(Board member) Kelly Lott gave a good example from a business perspective," Cosentino said. "It's like airplanes or hotels -- regardless of the rate of occupancy that a flight or hotel has, there is a fixed cost to flying the plane or keeping the hotel open."

Cosentino said the region's "fixed cost" can't be reduced at this point. Bringing in students from out-of-district would bolster the coffer while revitalizing the region.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Once again, Region 12's small towns have held sway in a bigtime vote.

Tuesday's referendum about whether to fund $8.28 million in renovations and repairs to Shepaug Valley School resulted in defeat for the project, 569-403.

The question passed in the region's biggest town, Washington, 206-128, but with just a sparse 13 percent turnout.

Bridgewater and Roxbury voters turned out in better numbers, 24 and 20 percent, respectively, and their 241-56 and 200-141 no votes carried the day.

"The public may have felt reluctant to fund work to Shepaug Valley School without assurances that the region will be adequately populated with a student body," said Alan Brown, Board of Education vice chairman.

"This defeat gives us the opportunity as a board and administration to prove our commitment to the viability of the region," Brown added. "So much time and energy was put into promoting consolidation... not enough attention was given to providing a Plan B."

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino and Board of Education chairman James Hirschfield did not return Spectrum phone calls.

Voters in the region had rejected the repairs to the middle/high school April 29, as well as the construction of a new consolidated school on the Shepaug campus.

The administration and some Board of Education members hoped that defeat had been due to the projects being bundled together in one $40 million-plus referendum question.

The New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) evaluation at the school will take place in 2015. The administration had said the work would be necessary for accreditation to be achieved.

Work at Shepaug Valley School would have included a $1 million replacement/upgrade of the science labs, a new atrium entrance area, replacement of bleachers, site lighting improvements, heating, ventilation and air conditioners (HVAC) improvements, and energy management system improvements among other renovations.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Region 12 voters will again go to the polls Tuesday, June 17.

This time voters in Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury will decide on a proposed $8.28 million project to renovate and repair Shepaug Valley School, which houses the district's middle and high schools.

The polls will be open Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m. in all three towns.

Voters in the region rejected middle/high school repairs April 29, as well as the construction of a new consolidated elementary school on the Shepaug campus.

It is hoped by the region's Board of Education the defeat of the construction question was due to the two projects being linked together in one $40 million referendum question.

Work at the 44-year-old middle/high school would include a $1 million replacement/upgrade of the science labs, a new atrium entrance area, replacement of bleachers, site lighting improvements, heating, ventilating and air conditioning system improvements, and energy management system improvements among other renovations.

Board members believe it is necessary to complete work at Shepaug before assessment by the 2015 New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC), if the school is to achieve full accreditation.

Susan Tuz

Voters in Region 12 could well be asked one more time to fund $8.28 million for repairs and renovations to Shepaug Middle/High School.

But addressing just how to educate elementary school children in the region will be considered by a committee of Board of Education members before a proposal would go to voters.

In an April 29 referendum, region voters rejected changes to the regional plan that would have closed the three elementary schools in Bridgwater, Roxbury and Washington and built a consolidated elementary school on the Shepaug campus.

On the same ballot, voters also defeated a proposed $40 million-plus bonding package that would have funded an upgrade 0f Shepaug Valley Middle/High School and the construction of a consolidated elementary school.

The Board of Education decided Monday to sever the original $40 million bonding question, instead taking the consolidated school off the table and returning a request for funding $8.28 million for Shepaug upgrades.

Bob Giesen, the district's director of finance, will contact bond counsel on the question,.

A public hearing would then be scheduled, followed by a referendum vote before the end of the present school year.

Monday's meeting was heated as board members often disagreed how to proceed in the wake of the referendum outcome.

Bridgewater board member Alan Brown argued grades could be reconfigured in Burnham and Booth Free schools in Bridgewater and Roxbury without the need for a referendum vote.

"I've talked to Richard Hoffman, who was principal of those schools in the 1970s and 1980s," Brown said. "In 1975, fourth grades were combined and, in the 1982-83 school year, second grades were combined and moved forward until that class graduated from Burnham."

"There was no vote taken to do that," he added.

However, the specter of Region 14's recent court battle about a change to its regional plan being opposed by some residents caused Region 12 board members to balk at Brown's suggestion.

"All we have to do is look to Region 14..." said board member Valerie Andersen of Washington.

"I appreciate the history lesson," said board member Jennifer Pote of Washington. "But the parents of 41 Booth Free students don't want that reconfiguration."

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino recently received a letter from 25 Booth Free School parents asking the board not to use Booth Free for the grades 3-5 and Burnham for grades K-2.

"We do not support this plan," the Booth Free parents letter read. "We supported consolidation because we wanted our children to be in a larger, more vibrant school environment. This school merge plan does not provide this opportunity for our children."

Board members were not the only ones whose tempers flared Monday.

Audience members at the meeting expressed anger about how the issue of consolidation had been handled, how the elementary schools have not been properly maintained and how the Bridgewater group Save Our Schools fought to keep Burnham school open.

"A total of $459,000 may have been approved to elementary school repairs but that money clearly has not been spent on the schools," said Bridgewater First Selectman Curtis Read. "Perhaps that has purposely been done to assure their closing."

"I've never voted against an education budget before," said Elliot Woolwich of Bridgewater. "It hurt to vote no. But having money spent on architect's drawings before the question of consolidation was ever put before the voters put people off. It made it seem like consolidation was a fait accompli."

Paula Conway, one of the 25 Roxbury parents who signed the letter to Cosentino, said "Save Our Schools in Bridgewater, you're win came at a very high price."

"You have lost the trust and respect of many Booth Free families sitting here tonight," she added."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

The 2014-15 education budget of $21.62 million was approved Tuesday by a low turnout of Region 12 voters.

The budget passed, 300-132, in a cumulative vote from Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury.

Turnout by town was 9 percent in Bridgewater, 8.2 percent in Roxbury and 6 percent in Washington.

Budget distribution for the region's schools by town for 2014-15 will be Bridgewater $4.74 million; Roxbury $7.05 million; and Washington $9.78 million.

The balance is anticipated to come from tuition payments by non-resident students, interest income and state grants.

Susan Tuz

The voters have spoken in Region 12 and the strong majority said "Save Our Schools."

Voters in Bridgewater turned out in force for Tuesday's referendum and defeated a proposed change to the regional plan by a vote of 786 to 81.

In Roxbury, the question was also resoundingly defeated, 585-306.

Washington voters, with just a 33 percent turnout, passed the question, 550-251.

The proposed change would have eliminated the requirement a K-5 elementary school must exist in each of the region's three towns and, instead, a consolidated pre-K to grade 5 elementary school would be built on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus.

Voters in the three towns cumulatively voted down consolidation by a 1,622 to 937 count, or 63.4 to 36.6 percent.

"I'm disappointed," said Washington First Selectman Mark Lyon, "because our elementary school students will suffer."

"Washington contributes 46 percent of the cost to run the region," he added, "and has the most people involved in the process but we don't get to say what happens."

Lyon noted almost two years ago the three first selectmen had gotten together and said things couldn't go on as they have.

"There were supposedly some wonderful ideas out there and I can't wait to hear them," Lyon added.

The second referendum question -- to authorize bonding $40.88 million to finance the building of a consolidated elementary school and make repairs to Shepaug Middle High School -- similarly was defeated.

In Bridgewater, Question 2 was defeated, 814-58, while in Roxbury the count was 669 no to 245 yes.

Again, Washington approved the question, 532-288.

The cumulative three-town vote against bonding to build a new school and repair the middle/high school was 1,771 to 835.

"We've always realized there are issues that need to be solved," said Alan Brown, Board of Education vice chairman and Bridgewater selectman. "I've always felt the answer to declining enrollment needed to be a solution that was satisfactory to all three towns."

Brown noted he and a small handful of others have been a dissenting voice on the education board, a voice that couldn't be heard.

"Consolidation always seemed to be the answer gravitated to," Brown said. "Now the board has heard from the people of the towns. Consolidation isn't the answer they want."

Brown said he is ready to work to find the right solution for all three towns, as is Bridgewater resident Carolan Dwyer, co-founder of Save Our Schools.

"We're so pleased that tomorrow our children can go back to Burnham knowing they'll remain in a top-rated school," Dwyer said. "We're thrilled Roxbury has joined us in the fight."

"Now comes the time to move forward and reach decisions that will work for everyone," Dwyer said.

For Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino, consolidation had been the best choice from an educational and social perspective for the children.

"However, what the parents and community wants takes precedent," Cosentino said. "We needed this information to move forward."

"I will work diligently with the Board of Education to offer options that put students first," she added, "and address the board's goal of answering declining enrollment rising costs and dealing with our aging facilities."

Board of Education chairman Jim Hirschfield could not be reached for comment.

Board member Valerie Andersen of Washington was disappointed with the referendum results.

"It is a pyrrhic victory and, sadly, it's short-sighted," she said. "There's nothing we can do at this stage."

"I feel sorry for the children of Burnham School because they will be in combined classes," she opined, "and sorry that we will not have a state-of-the-art, secure building for the youngest children of Region 12."

Bridgewater's first selectman, Curtis Read, felt far differently Tuesday after the results were known.

--We're thrilled about Roxbury's outcome," said Read. "It's a resounding message for the school board. Now we have to deal with regional realities. I'm looking forward to new conversations to find solutions."

"Everybody has to work together with no hard feelings between towns," he said. "They've gone for consolidation twice now and both times, heard `no.' "

Roxbury's first selectman, Barbara Henry, was pleased with her town's 54 percent voter turnout.

"In the informational meetings, the comments were mixed and this solidifies what people were thinking," Henry said. "Now we have to go back and get to work. Everything is on the table."

"We can't go on as we have," she added. "Hopefully we can come to an agreement soon."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Voters in Region 12 will answer two questions Tuesday, April 29 on a referendum that might well prove a fork in the road for the school district.

At question in the towns of Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater:

1) Should the district bond $40.87 million to build a consolidated elementary school on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus and do repairs/renovation to the current facility?

2) Should the regionalization plan that requires each of the three towns to have its own elementary school be amended?

"One of the reasons that the Board of Education feels so passionately about this referendum is that they want to hear from all members of all three of the communities," said Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino, "to know their feelings on consolidation."

"That's why its so important for everyone to get out to vote," Cosentino added. "So far, we have only heard from a small number of people from all three communities."

A change to the original 1967 regional plan would delete "elementary grade K-5 to remain in present home town schools" and replace it with "a pre-K to 5 consolidated elementary school constructed on the Shepaug campus."

A "yes" vote on the question would mean closing Burnham School in Bridgewater, Booth Free School in Roxbury and Washington Primary School in Washington in fall 2017 when the new consolidated school would be anticipated to open.

Enrollment projections to 2023 predict region-wide enrollment would have declined to 460 students.

Student enrollment on Oct. 1, 2013 in the region was 796. The net expenditure per pupil during the 2013-14 school year is $23,859.

"Even the people opposed to consolidation realize the class sizes are not going to work going forward," said Greg Cava, Board of Education member from Roxbury.

"This would provide better, more secure education for our children," he added. "If we do nothing, the cost is going to be far in excess of that."

Bridgewater mom Carolan Dwyer, co-founder of Save Our Schools, said Monday the projections presented by proponents of consolidation on savings through consolidation are flawed.

"They're basing the savings on everything remaining status quo," Dwyer said. "We are advocating combining students in a configuration of grades at Booth Free and Burnham schools to balance things out."

"That will bring savings not being considered," she added. " We are sure we'll see tax increases with higher mill rates if consolidation happens."

Save Our Schools has distributed more than 600 signs throughout Bridgewater, with some in Roxbury. Dwyer said all signs are posted on lawns throughout the towns.

"We're calling for a strong voter turnout," she said, "resulting in a decision that puts this behind us so we can start working on reasonable solutions that don't carry a $50 million price tag."

The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all three towns:

Bridgewater: Hilltop Farm Senior Center, 132 Hut Hill Road.

Roxbury: Roxbury Town Hall, 29 North Street (Route 67).

Washington: Bryan Memorial Town Hall, 2 Bryan Memorial Plaza.

Architectural firm Fletcher-Thompson developed a proposed consolidated school design. With an estimated state reimbursement of $4.4 million, the estimated cost to the region would be $28.19 million for the new consolidated school.

The consolidated school building would be 59,000-square-feet, likely located on the present upper field on the west side of Shepaug campus, with its own driveway and parking area, playground and garden.

Repairs to Shepaug Middle/High School would cost the region $6.95 million, if an estimated $1.33 million reimbursement would be received from the state.

Board member Valerie Andersen believes operating cost efficiencies would be seen once the new consolidated school were to be opened.

Elementary school staffing would go from 59 full time equivalent positions to 31, Andersen said.

There would be a 27 percent reduction in maintenance, utilities and building management, she added.

"We can actually service this debt," said Andersen, chairman of the board's finance committee. "We will bring new bonds on so the impact on the operating budget will be minimal. Over time, we'll see a fairly steady decline."

If approved by voters, the new consolidated school would be open by 2017.

It would be at a break-even point of cost by 2027, Andersen opined.

At the same time, a study was conducted by Bridgewater residents opposed to consolidation to determine the costs and potential benefits of tuitioning out older students, closing the Shepaug Middle/High School and keeping the three elementary schools open.

That study projected $3 million in savings annually with its plan.

It was signed by former Bridgwater selectman Ed Bennett and former education board members Loy Wilkinson and Rolland Harvey, as well as former Region 12 Board of Education members.

Voters in Region 12 will go to the polls May 6 to vote on a proposed $21.62 million budget for the 2014-15 school year.

The budget would represent a .002 percent decrease from the current year.

Budget distribution by town would be Bridgewater $4.74 million; Roxbury $7.05 million; and Washington $9.78 million.

The balance would be anticipated to come from tuition payments by non-resident students, interest income and state grants.

Susan Tuz

The Region 12 Board of Education delivered what it feels is a lean budget Monday, March 31 for the 2014-15 school year.

The budget proposal of $21,618,021 would represent a .002 percent decrease from the current fiscal year.

The amount of $160,000 for heating conversion at Washington Primary School was removed from capital facilities in the operating budget. That cost was instead made an expenditure from the Elementary Schools Lease Fund.

Central to Monday's budget deliberations was the the position of one kindergarten teacher who could be cut from Burnham School in Bridgewater.

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino cut the position in her budget proposal since only four students are anticipated in Burnham's kindergarten class next year.

Cosentino plans to combine kindergarten and first grade at the school. There are seven students anticipated in the first grade class.

"I realize the elimination of the kindergarten teacher is difficult to accept, but I don't think it is a responsible decision financially to have a class with just four students," Cosentino said.

"Parents who want their child in a solely kindergarten class will have the option of having their child attend Booth Free School," she added. "Transportation would be the parents' responsibility."

Board members from Bridgewater argued to put the position back in the operating budget for 2014-15. Alan Brown said the position could later be cut if kindergarten enrollment remained low in the fall.

However, Washington board member Valerie Andersen pointed out parents need to plan ahead and it would be unfair to hand a pink slip to a teacher in September.

In the end, the position remained cut from the budget by a vote of 7 to 4, with 1 abstention.

The district budget hearing is set Monday, April 7 at 7 p.m. in the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School library.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

The path for future public education in the towns of Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington could be determined April 29.

That day, voters in those Region 12 school district will participate in referendum on possible consolidation of its elementary schools.

The referendum will ask voters to decide on proposed changes to the regional plan and whether $40.87 million should be spent on construction of a consolidated elementary school and repairs/renovations to Shepaug Valley Middle /High School.

"I have a sense many people in Washington are for building the consolidated school," said Jennifer Pote, a Board of Education member from Washington, "but there is a sense of sadness that Washington Primary School would be closed."

"I feel consolidation is in the best interest of the students," Pote added, "but, as a board member, I respect the views of all people in the region."

The change to the 1967 regional plan would delete "elementary grades K-5 to remain in their present home town schools" and replace it with "a pre-K to (grade) 5 consolidated elementary school constructed on the Shepaug campus."

A "yes" vote on this question would mean closing Burnham School in Bridgewater, Booth Free School in Roxbury and Washington Primary School in Washington in the fall of 2017 when the new consolidated school would be anticipated to open.

The facilities construction and renovations will appear as one question on the referendum.

A "yes" vote would approve both projects -- the entire cost of building the consolidated school on the Shepaug campus -- $32,597,202 -- and making repairs and renovations to Shepaug Valley Middle/High School -- $8,281,989.

Board member Greg Cava of Roxbury noted "Even the people opposed to consolidation realize the class sizes are not going to work going forward."

"This would provide better, more secure education for our children," he added. "If we do nothing, the cost is going to be far in excess of that,."

Alan Brown, Bridgewater Selectman and school board vice chairman, believes the referendum is past due.

"The first selectmen wanted the question asked so they could get an answer 16 months ago," Brown said. "Our selectmen wanted it so we could vote this down and move forward with a solution that will be good for everyone."

"There are ways we can address this situation that do not require such a huge expense while facing such a huge unknown," Brown said. "We should look at reconfiguring grades, the concept of having elementary grades across the three schools, tuitioning out."

Region 12 leaders are struggling to cope with an uncertain future.

Yet for the moment, at least, Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino has managed in her 2014-15 schools budget proposal to keep a lid on spending.

Dr. Cosentino has presented a $21.78 million budget proposal, a figure which would represent a .54 percent or $461,556 increase over the present year.

Per pupil expenditure would be $24,211 for 2014-15.

Budget distribution by town would be $4.74 million for Bridgewater, which accounts for 21.96 percent of the student enrollment from the region; $7.05 for Roxbury, with 32.69 percent of the region's students; and $9.78 million for Washington, with 45.35 percent of the region's students.

The balance is anticipated to come from tuition payments by non-resident students, interest income and state grants.

Salaries would be up by $144,303 in th esuperintendent's proposed budget.

Employee benefits would be down by $48,325. Although the facilities budget total would remain unchanged, many capital projects totaling $520,900 would be considered.

"I look forward to working with everyone to make this budget work," Cosentino told the Board of Education Monday. "My focus is on elementary education with this budget as we attempt to reduce costs and promote the theme of `Thinking Regionally.' "

Cosentino's proposal for 2014-15 would reduce the current staff by 6.25 full time equivalency positions.

This would include the elimination of one Burnham kindergarten teacher, 1.15 position of intervention and remedial tutors, and .6 physical education teacher at Washington Primary School.

The cost savings from this reduction would be $215,780.

Cosentino is hoping to combine Bridgewater and Roxbury's kindergarten class and have one first grade class, combining students from both towns.

Technology capital would be down, despite the budget including chromebooks for third and fourth grades and SMARTBoards in the middle and high school humanities classrooms, as well as unified arts classrooms district-wide.

"This is an extremely intelligent budget proposal," said board member Valerie Andersen, "and does what we have to do in this transitional time. I think it's one of the best budgets I've seen."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Region 12 has moved one step closer to referendum on possible elementary-school consolidation and changes to its regional plan.

Following Tuesday's public hearing, the Board of Education approved putting the question of bonding $40.87 million before voters of the towns of Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater.

Money would fund building a consolidated K-5 school on the Shepaug Valley Middle.High School campus and renovating the present facility.

However, a question regarding possible amendment to the regionalization plan was put on hold until a second public hearing could be held.

That hearing is scheduled Thursday, March 13 at 7 p.m. at Shepaug Valley Middle/High School.

The proposed amendment would remove the words "elementary grades K-5 remain in their present hometown schools" and would add "and construct a new consolidated school on the Shepaug campus."

"If you don't put specific language in the amendment, it could be challenged," said board attorney Gary Brochu. "The State Supreme Court is deciding on a case by case basis now."

"In 2009, you issued a bond and that was challenged," he added. "The Supreme Court said that was a fundamental change in the plan. You have to fully inform the voters so they know your intent."

Tuesday's public hearing was attended by some 100 residents of the three towns.

Roxbury resident Paul Lang cautioned the board to be specific and follow state statute in putting any questions before the public.

He reminded the board of the challenge to Region 14's attempt to change its regional plan and the litigation and cost that came with it.

Bridgewater resident Ed Wainwright presented a study conducted by residents of his town to determine the costs and potential benefits of tuitioning out middle and high school students, closing the Shepaug middle/high school and keeping the three elementary schools open.

The study projected $3 million in annual savings. The document was signed by former Bridgwater selectmen Ed Bennett, Loy Wilkinson and Rolland Harvey, as well as former Region 12 education board members.

"The demise of Shepaug may be imminent," Wainwright said, "given the declining enrollment. The region is the victim of the economy and changing demographics."

Board member Valerie Anderson gave assurance operating cost efficiencies would be seen if a new consolidated school were to open.

Elementary school staffing would go from 59 full time equivalent positions to 31, Andersen said. There would be a 27 percent reduction in maintenance, utilities and building management, she added.

"We can actually service this debt," said Andersen, chairman of the board's finance committee. "We will bring new bonds on so the impact on the operating budget will be minimal. Over time, we'll see a fairly steady decline."

If approved by voters, the new consolidated school would be open by 2017 and at a break even point of cost by 2027, Andersen noted.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Feb. 28, 2014

Given enrollment projections to 2023, the chances for Region 12 survival is now an open question.

Voters in Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington will have to consider the school district's future as they go to the polls soon to decide whether to amend the regional plan.

At stake, too, will be whether to approve the construction of a consolidated grades K-5 school on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus in Washington.

A final design plan for such a consolidated school with cost projection may be approved by the Board of Education at its Monday, Feb. 24 meeting.

A referendum question and date is scheduled for approval at the board's March 3 meeting.

Enrollment projections to 2023 predict enrollment will have declined to 460 students region-wide. On Oct. 1, 2013, student enrollment in the region was 796 students.

The last time enrollment in the three towns was below 800 students was about 1957, more than a dozen years before the regional school district was formed, according to Peter Prowda, the statistician who developed the projections.

"Is the forecast too severe?" Prowda asked. "In the five years from 2004 to 2008 (this fall's kindergarten through fourth graders), births in the region's three towns averaged 49."

"Births in the 2009 to 2013 period will average only 38," he added. "This practically guarantees a decline."

That said, Prowda noted it is critical to remember a projection is just a moving forward of recent trends.

The key assumption, he added, is those conditions would persist. It does not predict when economic conditions might change, he said.

He recommends using his projections as "a starting point for local planning."

Board of Education chairman Jim Hirschfield agreed with Prowda's caveat about using the projection solely as talking points.

"They gave me concern as far as thinking about the region in the long term. But do we know that they're correct?," Hirschfield said of the projections. "I hear a lot of things."

"A fundamental decision will be made in this region as things come to a critical point," he said. "A vote needs to be taken. It's up to the voters to decide."

Prowda looked at the region's enrollment over a 44 year period from 1970 to 2013 to give an historic perspective.

In 1970, enrollment was 1,222, peaking at 1,247 in 1974.

In 2003, the enrollment was 1,169. That figure capped a 14-year growth period for the region.

"Region 12's growth cycle in the 1990s was on par with the state-wide growth cycle," Prowda said. "Its decline cycle of the 2000s has been much steeper than the state's cycle to date."

For Bridgewater mother Julie Stuart, co-chairman of Save Our School, a group dedicated to save Burnham School, it must be "counter intuitive in most people's minds that you don't build a new, larger school faced with such projections."

"Demographics have gotten to the point where our town is working to attract families," Stuart said. "For years, residents wanted the quality of life and our school here in Bridgewater to be a well kept secret."

"Now we've started a campaign that will be funded by the town to bring people into town," she added. "There are parents to the south who like the small classes that Burnham School has to offer."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

One more information session will be offered as the Region 12 Board of Education prepares for a referendum this spring.

The Board of Education has requested a preliminary conceptual design and estimated cost for a possible 300-student, pre-k to fifth grade school building on the existing Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus.

The session will meet Saturday, Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. at Shepaug.

Architect Fletcher-Thompson will present preliminary concepts for a possible school and project manager ARCADIS will present a timeline of events leading up to a referendum.

For more information, visit the district's long-term strategic plan page at www.region-12.org.

The Region 12 Board of Education is preparing for a referendum this spring.

The board has requested a preliminary conceptual design and estimated cost for a proposed 300-student pre-kindergarten to 5th grade school building on the existing Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus in Washington.

Information sessions are scheduled Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at Bryan Memorial Town Hall in Washington; Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at Roxbury Town Hall; Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at Burnham School in Bridgewater; and Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. at Shepaug Valley Middle/High School.

The architectural firm Fletcher Thompson will present preliminary concepts for the new elementary school.

For more information, visit the district's long-term strategic plan page on the district's website at www.region-12.org.

Region 12 is apparently caught in a `quagmire.'

At least members of the region's Board of Education appear to stuck in neutral regarding the question of consolidation.

This was the opinion of board member Susan Stumpf of Bridgewater this week upon learning the board's attorney nixed proceeding to region-wide referendum with the question proposed by the board.

A dollar amount required for construction of a possible consolidated school for children from Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury cannot be attached to a ballot question about amending the three towns' regional plan, board chairman Jim Hirschfield of Washington told the board Monday.

There would have to be two ballot questions, he said, and who could vote on each issue would depend whether the voter's status be resident or taxpayer.

Having a dollar amount included in the ballot question had been the board's understood premise in hiring architectural firm Fletcher-Thompson for $104,000 to develop pre-referendum schematics and a cost for a new school.

"We're dead in the water," said board member Pete Tagley of Washington. "Real dead. There's no overwhelming support for this."

"We're spending a lot of money," he added, "and I've had no direction from anyone in Washington telling me what they want us to do."

Stumpf agreed.

"I'm all for having the public guide the board," she said, "but we're not going in that direction. That's the quagmire we're in."

Fletcher-Thompson representatives held three "Future of Region 12" meetings during the last two weeks and met with school administrators and educators to glean "direction from the community" before beginning schematic designs.

"It was very informative," said Daniel Casinelli of Fletcher-Thompson. "We heard pros and cons which helped us in trying to understand the needs and concerns of the community."

Casinelli and his team presented their findings Monday to the Region 12 board.

"There is a strong sense that the community feel now existing in the three separate elementary schools should be maintained," said Angela Cahill of Fletcher-Thompson. "That would include having an intimate atmosphere for students and accommodating community activities to be held at the (new) school."

Whether Fletcher-Thompson's calculations will go before Region 12 voters remains to be seen.

Board vice chairman Alan Brown of Bridgewater called for an immediate referendum, with the sole question of whether the regional plan should be amended.

Brown's motion was tabled, but Hirschfield said he would review Brown's motion for the next meeting.

"If a referendum to amend the regional plan fails that's it," Hirschfield said. "But we want to present voters with the information they need to make an informed decision."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Dec. 6, 2013School officials and the architectural firm Fletcher-Thompson have a big job on their hands promoting the construction of a consolidated elementary school in Region 12.

Daniel L. Casinelli, a Fletcher-Thompson representative, and his team are on a speaking tour of the region's three towns, gathering resident input and promoting the project for the Board of Education.

Bridgewater residents resisted the firm's attempt to engage them during a Dec. 3 forum at Burnham School.

The following evening, the firm received a warmer response during a forum at Shepaug Valley Middle/High School for Washington.

A forum was also set Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Booth Free School in Roxbury.

In Bridgewater, Casinelli and his team were met with angst and anger as some 50 residents of the town essentially took control of the meeting.

Questions about why Fletcher-Thompson was hired for $102,000 and why a consolidation plan had come to this pre-referendum point took precedence over the actual plans.

Resident after resident expressed his or her displeasure with the region's proposal to close Burnham School.

Carolan Dwyer, an organizer of Save Our School, pointed out Bridgewater's three representatives on the Board of Education had repeatedly voted against consolidation plans.

The town does not want consolidation, she said.

The education board vote was 8 to 4 to hire Fletcher-Thompson and project managers Arcadis pre-referendum, at the cost of $102,000.

"We were hired to develop a conceptual design of a pre-K to fifth grade school and to determine the cost for the referendum," Casinelli said. "We're trying to understand why you like this (Burnham) school, what you would do to this school to improve it."

Parent Suzanne Creech responded.

"You're missing the point," she said. "This school is our community. Everyone gets involved in the school when their child is here and that carries on to membership in the fire department, to other areas of the town."

While Bridgewater residents are vehemently opposed to consolidation, the 12 parents from Roxbury and Washington in attendance Dec. 4 were readily onboard with discussing what they would like to see in a new consolidated school on the Shepaug campus.

"Some of the parents have a problem with this but the kids will be fine with it," said Washington father Jay Hubelbank. "It will make a better community for all the kids. Parents will all know each other from their children's first-grade years all the way through."

Roxbury mom Carrie DeMilio noted, "I don't like that currently schools like Burnham are right on the main street of the town. I work in a different school district and I like that you have to go through a guard station to get on campus."

Nicholas Macy, the senior project manager for Arcadis, said security would be a paramount concern in his company's oversight of a consolidated school project.

"School security is a topic everywhere we go," Macy said. "You want flexibility. You want to know kids are safe but you don't want to go over the top and have kids feel like they're going into a prison."

"We need to learn from you where that middle ground is from your perspective," he added.

Fletcher-Thompson and Arcadis staff will make a presentation of their findings to the Region 12 Board of Education Monday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. in the library at Shepaug Middle/High School.

A request for proposals for a project manager will be issued soon by the Region 12 schools administration.

Board of Education members voted, 10-1, Monday to hire a project manager to help develop preliminary figures for an upcoming referendum.

A referendum will soon be set to decide if the towns of Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury should amend their regionalization plan and authorize construction of a preK-5 elementary school on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus in Washington.

Cost of renovation work on the present Shepaug building would be included in the vote.

Susan Tuz

Bridgewater selectman candidate Leo Null called for the Region 12 Board of Education to put the brakes on as it struggles with the question of consolidation.

Null, who recently retired as the building official for the city of Danbury, called for caution Monday in making a final decision about possibly closing the region's three elementary schools and consolidating students in a new building.

"I've dealt with Kaestle Boos and other architectural firms for years," Null told the education board. "In Danbury, we finally razed a school and built a new one, then found out the census was wrong (on population projections). The city just put additions on three schools to handle the student population growth."

"Why not just bond for the work needed at Shepaug," Null added, "and then deal with consolidating elementary students in one building at a later date, if needed?"

First Selectman Mark Lyon and Board of Finance chairman Michael Jackson of Washington noted five to 10 years from now student population figures may grow.

They also reminded the region would then know if the state might plan to change small regions' districting.

A referendum date of Nov. 5 is being considered to ask voters if they want to change the regionalization plan, eliminating the requirement of having an elementary school in each of the three towns -- Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington.

A second yes-or-no question would be asked about building a new consolidated pre-K to grade 5 building for $23 million on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus and do renovations and repairs at the existing building.

The board seems stymied in arriving at a dollar figure for repair work actually needed.

Numbers fluctuate from $1.7 million to $3.6 million. The figure climbs to as much as $20 million when projecting required repairs at Shepaug forward 20 years.

First selectmen of the three towns urged education board members Monday to take the question to the voters.

"I want you to go forward," said Barbara Henry, Roxbury first selectman. "I want the people to understand what they are voting for and how far this money they're being asked for will go."

"I'm all set, if you want to spend $3 million and repair Shepaug," said Bill Stuart, Bridgewater first selectman. "I'm all for that and we probably don't have to bond for it."

The next Region 12 Board of Education business meeting will be Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Shepaug library.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Contentious may well sum up Region 12's Board of Education meetings about its schools' future.

Board members Alan Brown, Valerie Andersen and Kelly Lott said Monday they felt broadsided by seemingly new dollar amounts they were hearing for renovation work needed at Shepaug Valley Middle/High School.

"All of these numbers can be massaged based on the fact that we're hearing now the $20 million isn't needed and we can do the necessary work for $1.7 million or $3.6 million," Brown said. "This whole system is flawed."

In June, the region's first selectmen and boards of finance chairmen asked the education board to select the option of building a consolidated pre-K through fifth-grade school on the Shepaug campus and make necessary repairs at the middle/high school.

Officials from Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington had concluded a full $20 million in repairs to the middle/high school proposed by architects Kaestle Boos did not need to occur all at once, but rather be parceled out in five-year increments.

That prompted three hours of arguments and accusations.

The only progress was approving education specifications for a proposed consolidated elementary school.

"You don't like our answers. You don't trust our figures and you've turned down the RFP for a project manager," said Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino to the board. "I don't want anyone leaving here tonight thinking that anyone on my administrative team is being deceptive."

On the agenda but not accomplished were setting a referendum date for amending the regionalization plan; authorizing a request for proposals (RFP) to hire a project manager; and estimating the costs of the pre-K project.

Another meeting is set Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. to continue the discussion.

Sharp divisions separated the Region 12 Board of Education Monday, June 17 as it decided which referendum question to pass along to voters in the region's three towns.

In a vote of five in favor, two opposed and four abstentions, the board agreed to pass along a report to the Commissioner of Education on a proposal to amend the regionalization plan.

The proposed amendment followed Long Range Planning Committee Option 2b: the proposed closing of the three elementary schools -- Burnham in Bridgwater, Booth Free in Roxbury, and Washington Primary School -- and building a new pre-K to grade 5 building on the Shepaug Middle/High School campus along the Washington/Roxbury town line.

Renovations to the existing facility would be included.

Once approval would be received from the state, a referendum date would be set, tentatively in the fall.

Bridgewater residents in the audience Tuesday were devastated, with many breaking into tears.

"There is an actual reason why we want to have elementary schools in all of our towns," said board member Alan Brown, of Bridgewater.

"They may not be financially flavorful but they go beyond the subjective, the economical," Brown continued. "We crazies in Bridgwater believe the emotional, sociological development of our children is important and that is fostered by having small community schools."

The decision by the board was precipitated in part by a statement from the towns' three first selectmen and three boards of finance chairmen.

They had met on June 13 and reviewed options and data presented. Their decision was to recommend Option 2b: a new PreK-5 building on the Shepaug campus with a schedule of the projected costs for the middle high school repairs.

"We felt the high cost of a new K to grade 12 school would be difficult for the towns to bear," said Mark Lyon, Washington first selectman, "and would be difficult for the resident to accept."

"When the boards of finance looked at borrowing capacity of the three towns," he added, "they decided that a large bonding package for a new K through 12 school would affect bonding for other things needed in the towns."

Town officials concluded the full $20 million in repairs to the middle/high school proposed by architect Kaestle Boos did not need to occur all at once, saying they could be parceled out in five-year increments for work done.

This path would bring the projected cost of Option 2b down from $49 million, making it more manageable, explained Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

By Susan Tuz

Anthony Amato received a round of applause from the audience Monday at the Region 12 Board of Education meeting.

Amato, a member of the region's Long-Range Planning Committee, had just presented an economic evaluation of six options for the district's schools being considered by the committee.

His background is strategic planning, business development and operations management and he holds an MBA in finance and operations from Columbia University.

"Seeing how the numbers were coming at people," Amato explained, "I thought it best to aggregate the financial information so it was understandable for everyone."

The options ranged from staying with the present four facilities, with repairs done, to building a new pre-K to grade 12 school on the Shepaug Valley Middle/High School campus straddling the Washington/Roxbury line.

Using the present 2012-13 schools budget as his base, he projected two factors from the budget to 10 years -- salaries and benefits, and pperations and maintenance.

The analysis was kept constant between options by using capital planning and financial planning factors over a period of 20 to 25 years, which would cover the life of anticipated bonding.

Amato's evaluation was reviewed by Board of Finance chairmen from the region's three towns and agreed upon.

Under capital planning -- which considers construction costs for each option compared to costs savings over the length of a bond -- Amato found "most economically practical" the options