Sinking enrollment could force Pettibone's closing

Despite previous concerns about closing John Pettibone School, the New Milford Board of Education's facilities committee is now recommending that step.

The final decision, by state law. will belong to the Board of Education. The recommendation will be presented to the full board near the end of June.

Pettibone is currently a pre-K to third-grade elementary school facility, as are Hill and Plain School and Northville School.

No time frame on a possible closing was presented by the committee.

Yet committee members agree it would be at least two school years before the details could all be addressed.

"The data we've been presented does not support keeping all schools open," said Wendy Faulenbach, the Board of Education chairwoman.

"Budgets over the years have been a struggle," she said. "It would be difficult trying to explain maintaining all the present facilities when we are down to less than 50 percent of the (present) student population."

New Milford's school enrollment this year is 4,603 students.

Enrollment projections show a decline of 11 percent by 2017-18, with the pre-K to third-grade classes affected the most, according to educational analyst Tom Jokubaitis.

There has already been a marked decline in these grades since the 2007-08 school year. A total enrollment of 617 students in pre-K through third grade is projected for 2020-21.

Projections also show, if the facilities status quo were to be maintained, between 40 to 51 percent of the classrooms would be empty in each of the three elementary schools by 2015-16.

The committee of 29 educators, town officials and parents has met throughout the year to determine how to best deal with the situation.

After working for months with the planning firm of Milone & MacBroom, the committee decided Wednesday to recommend redistricting the town and keeping just two of the present elementary schools open.

The two elementary schools would each serve pre-K through second grades, with all third-grade classes moving to Sarah Noble Intermediate School, which would become a grades 3-5 facility.

The sixth grade would move from Sarah Noble to Schaghticoke Middle School, which would house sixth through eighth grade.

Suggestions for Pettibone's future include as another town facility or leasing the building to a private business while the town maintains ownership.

That decision would be in the hands of the town council.

It was acknowledged closing Pettibone, which has served the town since the mid-1950s, would be emotionally difficult for some families.

"It was strictly a geographically based decision to suggest Pettibone as the one to close," said Michael Zuba, associate senior partner at Milone & MacBroom.

"Busing costs were taken into consideration. New growth, when it does come, will be sprawl on the peripheries of town to the south and north -- as your zoning exists," Zuba added.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322