'Close Pettibone' lobby mantra raises eyebrows
Proponents of closing John Pettibone School in New Milford have added a new wrinkle to their argument.
For months, most advocates of closure have made clear their primary reason for wanting to shut down the oldest of the town's three elementary schools: It would save money for the taxpayers.
Proponents have made a simple, straightforward case: In this era of declining student enrollment and excess space, it makes sense to consolidate the town's schools, redistrict the kids, do grade reconfiguration and most likely sell the Pettibone property.
Bottom line, the "Close Pettibone" lobby has claimed, the town would save several hundred thousand dollars a year in operating costs -- millions over the next decade or two -- and could avoid spending countless millions more on fixing up the old building.
I believe many of those who want to close the doors at Pettibone do care about kids' education, but their central argument has been primarily about saving money and keeping the tax rate down.
That's why the mantra repeated by several of the proponents -- nearly all of them prominent Republicans -- who spoke at May 27's marathon Board of Education meeting came as something of a surprise.
Five speakers, including four GOP Town Council members, said they would like to see all monies saved by closing Pettibone turned over to the Board of Education.
One proponent called for plowing operational cost savings into a special capital fund that would ensure the town had monies available if it ever had to build another elementary school -- a suggestion likely aimed at calming the fears of those who worry about the cost of a new school should student enrollment increase in future years.
Two others said they would like to see the annual cost savings allocated to "the kids" and their education.
One advocate of closing Pettibone went even further, saying he would like the whole $23 million in operational cost savings and monies not spent on renovations over an unspecified number of years go "directly to the kids."
Yet another proponent said she supports giving the school board the money from any sale of the property.
Some or perhaps even all of these ideas are certainly worthy of consideration, but they raise eyebrows among folks on both sides of the issue. They also raise a host of questions.
1) For starters, if the proponents' main reason to close Pettibone is to save money, and then all of those cost savings are given to the Board of Education for "the kids," exactly how does that benefit the struggling taxpayers who were supposed to get some tax relief?
2) Are proponents really willing to forego tax relief, or are they simply trying to curry support for closure?
3) Is it realistic that any of the ideas would become reality?
4) Is it reasonable to think a town government that has a track record of fiscal conservatism and has regularly made significant cuts in school budget requests would all of a sudden turn over several hundred thousand dollars in cost savings to the school board every year in addition to its normal budget?
5) If the practice of turning over Pettibone cost savings to the Board of Ed were ever to happen, what would prevent town officials at any point in the future from cutting the board's budget request by a similar additional number of dollars, which would amount to reneging on the agreement?
6) Would any or all of these ideas hold up to legal scrutiny?
7) If so, would town officials be willing to commit to a legally binding covenant?
When all is said and done, the school board needs to make an informed decision about the future of John Pettibone School and all the ramifications involved, and it needs to base its decision, first and foremost, on what is best for the students, with financial considerations a lesser factor.
Many school districts are facing the same type of challenge, and a lot of them -- Ridgefield, Brookfield and Region 12 included -- are holding off on school closures, for a variety of good reasons.
But if the decision turns out to be closing the school, then the school board needs to remember the words of "Close Pettibone" proponents that helped sell the closure and seek those cost savings monies for the direct benefit of the town's schoolchildren.
Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The News-Times. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.