Region 12 would be better off with No/No vote
[Editor's Note: Last week, in Part I of a two-part Gut Feeling column series, Art Cummings wrote about the historic importance of the upcoming Region 12 referendum for the district and its three member communities. Today, in Part II, he discusses some of the key issues at play in the heated debate leading up to the vote.]
Nearly a half-century ago, the Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury communities decided to form a regional school district for their children.
In a 1967 vote, the three towns agreed to a regional plan that would lead to construction of Shepaug Middle/High School in Washington, a facility that would house grade 6-12 students from the whole district.
A key underpinning of the plan was the guarantee -- of particular importance to the two smaller towns, Bridgewater and Roxbury -- there would always be elementary schools in all three communities.
The marriage has worked quite well. The three idyllic towns have generally fit well together, and the four schools in the district have provided excellent educational experiences over the decades.
The biggest stressor, especially since the 1980s, has been the unrequited call, primarily from Washington, to close the local schools and build a consolidated K-5 school on the Shepaug campus.
Now, in an era of sharply declining student enrollments and escalating costs per pupil, the proposal is back and will be voted on at a district-wide referendum on April 29.
Region 12 residents will be asked two questions:
1) Do they approve waiving the guarantee of three local K-5 schools in favor of constructing a consolidated elementary school on the Shepaug campus?
2) Do they approve appropriation of nearly $41 million -- $32.6 million for a new school and $8.3 million for improvements and renovations at the middle high school?
All three towns must approve Question 1, while Question 2 can pass with a majority vote in the district.
As residents prepare to vote, there are several key issues to consider:
Costs -- Proponents point to operational cost savings, while opponents argue the long-term bonds will increase taxes and claimed savings don't take into account the costs all three towns would need to assume for maintenance and possible repurposing of the closed local schools.
One key question is this: Do Region 12 residents want to take on tens of millions of dollars in long-term bonding when projected enrollment is staggeringly low and the future of the district could be in doubt?
Other proposals would also reduce operating costs -- and would do so without such excessive debt.
Space -- Region 12 has four school buildings, and kids are rattling around in all four of them.
Key question: With so much excess existing space, is it wise to be building another school?
Educational quality/welfare of the children -- The district's three K-5 schools are all outstanding. Bridgewater's Burnham School and Roxbury's Booth Free School rank 1-2 in the region, based on state mastery test scores, and Washington Primary isn't far behind.
How much of a factor in the success of those schools is their local presence, the short bus rides for the kids, and the active involvement of parents in the schools?
Would a consolidated elementary school really improve educational quality -- or be better for the emotional growth of the children -- when many students would be away from their hometown, many would have lengthy bus rides, and parents inevitably would not be as closely involved?
I think those questions answer themselves.
Impact of closing the three local schools -- If both questions pass at referendum, Bridgewater and Roxbury would become the only towns in Connecticut without elementary schools.
No one knows for sure what would happen to those two wonderful, close-knit communities, but there would certainly be a negative impact on local businesses, housing prices, demographics and the social fabric.
And I have a hunch a lot of Washington parents don't want to lose their own local K-5 school, either.
Given all the issues involved, and weighing all the factors, I sincerely believe the Region 12 school district would be better off by voting No/No on April 29 and then going back to the drawing board for a more enlightened, more harmonious, less expensive, more common-sense solution.
Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The Spectrum. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.