Battle lines are drawn in Region 12
Region 12 is a school district deeply divided about its future.
The battle lines have been drawn, as they have been for literally decades.
At issue is whether the district should build a new consolidated pre-K-to-grade-5 elementary school near Shepaug Valley Middle High School in Washington or whether there should continue to be separate, local elementary schools in Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury.
On one side stands Washington, by far the biggest of the three towns and the community which has fostered the consolidation movement.
On the other side stands Bridgewater, the smallest town and the fiercest defender of retaining local schools.
Pretty much in the middle-- geographically and philosophically -- is Roxbury, which has traditionally supported local schools, although not with quite the same passion as Bridgewater.
Over the years, advocates for consolidation have mounted serious proposals -- and even district-wide votes -- for a combined facility. Those consolidation plans have been shot down at every turn but, like Congressional Republicans who keep trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the pro-consolidation lobby just won't give up.
Consolidation has picked up a head of steam over the past couple of years, as declining enrollment projections have painted a picture of significantly underutilized space at Washington Primary School, Burnham School in Bridgewater and Booth Free School in Roxbury in the future.
After studying various options, Region 12 officials -- over strong objections from Bridgewater -- decided to try once again to gain public support for a consolidated school.
According to Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino, the proposal is likely go to referendum in late March or early April.
Bridgewaterites have claimed -- with some justification -- not enough consideration has been given to proposals that would have kept Burnham and/or Booth Free open.
That could come back to haunt proponents of consolidation, since -- courtesy of a state Supreme Court ruling -- all three towns in Region 12 must approve any change in the regionalization plan. That means Bridgewater -- or Roxbury -- voters wield a hammer and could prevent closure of their school by voting down the consolidation plan.
To be sure, there are some compelling arguments in favor of consolidation -- reduced operating costs, arguably improved educational opportunities, closer bonds among the towns, parents and children.
The case for consolidation is easier to sell -- and townspeople have far less to lose -- in Washington, where the school would be located, than in Bridgewater and Roxbury.
A number of residents would probably prefer to keep open the old primary school right in the heart of Washington Depot, but a consolidated school would be just a short ride from the center of town.
For Roxbury and Bridgewater, it would be a whole different story.
Instead of going to school right in the middle of town, just a short walk or ride from home, young children in those towns would face lengthy bus rides to and from school every day. That would be especially true for Bridgewater, whose town center is about eight curvy, winding miles from the proposed school site.
I have often wondered how different the debate would be if plans called for a consolidated school in Bridgewater, meaning Washington kids would lose their school and face the long bus rides.
For the two smaller towns, however, the anti-consolidation argument goes well beyond transportation issues.
Burnham School is the top-ranked elementary school among comparative schools and one of the highest rated in the entire state, and Booth Free isn't far behind.
As nearly four dozen Bridgewater residents made very clear at a Dec. 3 meeting with architects and consultants working on the proposed project, they love their "phenomenal" school, their "great" teachers, and their "awesome" principal and PTO.
Burnham School is an integral part of the close-knit Bridgewater community, and many residents simply don't want to see it closed.
And consider this: If Burnham and Booth Free are closed, Bridgewater and Roxbury would be the only two towns in the state without a school within their borders.
Nobody knows exactly what that would mean for those towns, but it is fair to be deeply concerned about the economic impact on local businesses, about property values, and about the future demographics of small towns that have no schools and -- for many young families -- one giant reason not to move there.
Evidence of the gulf between Bridgewater and Washington could hardly have been more apparent than in that Dec. 3 public meeting with consultants in Bridgewater and a similar session in Washington the following evening.
The Bridgewater crowd was much larger, was much more passionate and appeared unanimous in its opposition to consolidation, while not a word of opposition was raised by the handful of folks who showed up in Washington.
Pro-consolidation forces still have a few months to sell the project, and you never know how referendum votes will go.
But sadly, regardless of the outcome, it is likely the district will remain divided and hard feelings will linger, at least for some time -- an unfortunate state of affairs for three great little towns with so much in common.
Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The The Greater New Milford Spectrum and The News-Times. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org