Lowering the boom
Board of Education votes, 5-4, to close Pettibone School
John Pettibone School in New Milford will be closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
In what some have called "an historic" 5 to 4 vote June 18, the Board of Education approved closing the nearly 60-year-old elementary school, to reconfigure grades and redistrict the town's schoolchildren.
The board will also create a subcommittee to assess the use of the 16.4-acre Pettibone property. The board would have to relinquish its right to use the building for educational purposes to hand it over to the Town Council for other uses.
Some council members have suggested razing the building and selling the property.
"It's awful," said Dionne Boisvert, a mother of two and Pettibone PTO president. "My biggest concern is that the sixth-graders don't belong with seventh- and eighth-graders."
"And I don't think Hill and Plain can handle more kids," she added, referring to one of the town's other elementary schools.
Grades kindergarten through second will be distributed at the two remaining elementary schools, Hill and Plain and Northville.
"I believe that numbers don't lie but there's a human element to this decision," Spatola said. "There's love at Pettibone... if you can get a child to love going to school, you're doing something right. I can't support closing Pettibone."
"I firmly believe it is wrong to close Pettibone at this time," Coppola said. "The fastest growing area now is Danbury and I see an immigrant community coming here from that city. I see us in trouble in coming years with the need to build another school."
Among the considerations for closing Pettibone were finding the most efficient use of school facilities and resources.
It has been estimated $23 million would be saved over a period of time with the closing of the school. Some board members believe, based on promises from Republican Town Council members, that money saved could be spent on enriching educational programs for students.
That hope was stated by Chastain, Shook and Faulenbach as an important factor in their decision to close the school.
"I am looking at numbers, but its not all about the money for me," Faulenbach said. "It's about taking the (financial) resources we have and using them for the kids."
Coppola has his doubts.
"When I served on the Town Council, I didn't see savings going forward to the schools," he said. "With savings being in place, Board of Education budgets were repeatedly cut based on the funding being available."
"I don't trust that the ($23 million) will come to us," Coppola said, addressing his remarks to Mayor Pat Murphy and Board of Edcuation chairwoman Daniele Shook. "I think there will be cuts made in our budget requests."
Faulenbach was confident any savings would be used for educational enrichment.
"I can't support having partially empty schools," she said, "and seeing the money going there."
School district enrollment in 2013-14 was 4,346 students, compared to 4,591 students in 2012-13.
Projections used by the Board of Education show a decline of 11 percent by 2017-18, with the prekindergarten to third-grade classes affected the most.
A total enrollment of 617 students in pre-K to third grade is projected for 2020-21.
For many parents, moving the sixth-grade classes to Schaghticoke is a cause for concern. Issues of bullying, possible negative influences from older students, and not having that age group in an elementary setting are paramount in those concerns.
Coppola asked Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote to address parent concerns.
The superintendent said in the next year of planning for the closing of Pettibone and changes in the district, parents should be brought to Schaghticoke for informational sessions to allay fears.
"When Sarah Noble was renovated, the intent was that sixth grade would be conducted like an elementary grade with homeroom teachers," Paddyfote said. "But that didn't happen. Physically, sixth grade continued to function as it did at Schaghticoke."
Lawson insisted concerns about bullying are well founded.
"Bullying has been a problem for years," he said. "It's a covert activity. Kids are very sneaky about doing it."
"Now we're putting sixth-graders on buses with seventh- and eighth-graders," he cautioned. "We're giving an opportunity for bullying to happen. I haven't seen the human factor of those bus rides considered."
The decision to close Pettibone School came after eight months of a study by a facilities subcommittee comprising a cross-section of town residents.
The committee was charged with finding the most effective use of resources and facility space given the declining student population.
A recommendation to close Pettibone was presented in June 2013 to the previous Board of Education by the facilities committee.
That board passed the decision on to the present board, which met three times to hear parents' and residents' input and to discuss the topic.