Board of Ed to hand Pettibone to the town
John Pettibone School has served the town of New Milford for six decades as an elementary school.
Its final days as a school are looming, its tenure as an educational facility drawing to a close when the school year ends in mid-June.
Now, following a surprise decision May 12 by the Board of Education, it appears the town might not opt to capitalize on the building's and property's many potential uses.
The board voted, 6-2, in favor of transferring control of the property to the town on Sept. 30.
Numerous potential educational uses had been floated, but the board opted not to thoroughly investigate those.
Keeping the school building property under the Board of Education umbrella as insurance should school enrollment again rise, as many think it will, has been a priority for some.
On May 12's original agenda was discussing the possibility of placing an alternative and/or culinary school there.
Those could all still be viable options, but the future for the parcel of land adjacent to the intersection of Route 7 and Pickett District Road is now anyone's guess.
Until Sept. 30, Mayor Pat Murphy said, rumors about what the land would be used for are strictly conjecture.
"I've got nothing in my back pocket," she remarked. "It's fun for people to make up all kinds of stuff, but that's not happening. We haven't reviewed it yet and we won't until we take it over."
The Toll Brothers company, which builds luxury homes, has expressed interest in the land.
Board of Education chairwoman Angela Chastain said the company sent a solicitation letter but "there was no offer."
Because the Board of Education doesn't have the ability to sell a town asset, Murphy reminded, she had to call Toll Brothers "to stop courting the board."
"We're in the education business," added Chastain, "not real estate."
If Murphy has her druthers, she admits the land would be used for commercial purposes.
She feels the heavy traffic along Danbury Road (Route 7 South) makes it unsafe for residential use.
The mayor also feels it could be a good spot for business, and added any decision has to go through the Town Council and then to a town meeting and referendum.
"I'd like to see something that produces jobs," she said. "I don't know any CEO that doesn't want more jobs."
The school board could have maintained control of the property as long as it would be used for educational purposes, but possible school-related uses for the building didn't gain traction within the Republican-dominated board.
New Milford attorney David Gronbach, the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate for mayor in November's municipal election, feels the Board of Education didn't properly pursue the building and property's potential other uses.
"There have been a number of great suggestions to use Pettibone for continued educational purposes; i.e.: the culinary school and/or an alternative high school," he said. "Some members of the board had a different agenda in mind."
"However, the decision to close Pettibone and now transfer it to the town is an issue that the people of this town care passionately about," added Gronbach, who will oppose six-term incumbent Republican Mayor Murphy in the fall election. "It is an issue about the town's future that deserves the opportunity to voice our opposition and present alternatives."
"That is what it means to live in a healthy democracy," he added.
The school district projects to save $13 million over the next 10 years by giving it up, which Chastain said could be used to improve school programs.
She doesn't believe Pettibone could be used for another educational purpose.
"There's no viable educational option for that building," she opined. "I'd rather put that money into funding programs than facilities."
Among those who aren't concerned the town will no longer have the opportunity to use the Pettibone property for schools' purposes is Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote.
"Based on enrollment projections, we will have enough space going forward," Paddyfote said. "If the projections hold, which they have been doing, it will take 13 to 15 years before we see growth in enrollment."
"Smaller classes will be coming in to kindergarten for some time into the future," she added. "Demographers say it takes 13 to 15 years for enough student population to increase before any school expansion has to be considered."
Neither they nor the public had been warned a vote could happen that evening.
An amendment to the agenda was approved by the GOP majority and, in spite of Lawson's efforts to postpone the decision to allow for discussion, the board then voted, 6-2, to hand the building and property over to town jurisdiction.
"What was done was perfectly legal, but certainly not in the democratic spirit," said board member David Lawson.
"Amendments are usually reserved for cases of an emergency situation," he added. "There was no urgency in this decision. Is it fishy? No. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Probably not."