Decision to close school can't be taken lightly

Best interests of kids, not politics and money, should carry the day

The battle lines are clearly drawn in the debate over the future of John Pettibone School in New Milford.

On one side stand parents and educators who oppose closing Pettibone and leaving the largest geographic town in Connecticut with just two elementary schools.

On the other side are town and school officials, spearheaded by leading members of New Milford's Republican power structure, who favor shutting down Pettibone in an era of declining student enrollment.

The issue, which has been studied and debated for months, was the focus of a special session of the Board of Education Tuesday night.

Thirty-one members of the public spoke to the board.

Twenty-two of them opposed closing the school, while nine speakers -- including five Republican Town Council members and longtime GOP movers and shakers Tom Pilla and Walter Rogg -- supported the proposal.

Both sides made sincere, at times impassioned, at times emotional arguments to support their respective cases.

And it was plain from the start of public participation to the finish that there was a striking philosophical divide between the two sides.

Opponents talked primarily about the students, their physical and emotional well-being, and the quality of education in New Milford. They raised a host of questions and concerns, from long bus rides and potentially larger class sizes to grade reconfiguration and the possibility the town might have to spend tens of millions of dollars for a new elementary school in the future.

They suggested waiting a while longer -- until the economy improves and it becomes more clear if student enrollment projections appear accurate -- before making a decision on Pettibone, just as area towns like Brookfield and Ridgefield have done.

Indeed, what is the rush, unless -- as one speaker surmised -- town officials have a potential property buyer waiting in the wings?

Proponents talked primarily about saving money, student population projections and excess space in the schools. They claimed New Milford's growth spurt has passed, that it is foolhardy to maintain so much excess space, and that the town needs the savings to help keep the mill rate down.

Both sides made valid points, but the question is this: Where does the school board go from here?

It is pretty clear the GOP-dominated board is leaning toward closing Pettibone, and it will take some admirable political courage for a couple of Republican members to join the three Democrats on the board in opposing the move, especially given the solidarity of the top GOP brass and with Mayor Pat Murphy -- the leading fiscal conservative in town -- sitting right at the head of the school board table.

We would remind the Board of Education that its top priority is the children of the community and their education.

To be sure, the school board needs to consider impact of its actions on the taxpayers, but it is not the Board of Finance and should not operate as if it were.

In that light, we encourage the Board of Education to offer or seek more substantive educational reasons for closing Pettibone before taking a vote.

So far, nearly all of the arguments for closing the school have been about money, not about the kids and their education.

We also urge the board to have a serious conversation about grade reconfiguration before they take action.

Just before the turn of the century, townspeople were told by educators that a configuration of grades K-3, 4-6, 7-8 and 9-12 was best for students, and that grade six students should not be mixed with seventh- and eighth-graders.

Now townspeople are being told that K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 is best.

Has educational philosophy really changed that much in such a short time span? Were residents sold a bill of goods before, or are they being sold a bill of goods now?

The decision as to whether to close John Pettibone School is a crucial one. It is a decision that will have a major impact on the students, on the school district and on the community for years to come.

This is not a decision that should be taken lightly, or made along party lines.

The future of the town's children is too important for that.