Region 12 taking care to get it right

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.; 860-355-7322