As enrollment shrinks, Chatham faces hard choices

CHATHAM–The seats were filled Tuesday night for the school district’s public presentation of the facilities study findings regarding a possible school closure option. The district has been exploring ways to save costs by consolidating students into two buildings, and closing the Middle School building. The board had an outside group conduct a facilities study which was recently completed, and wanted to inform the community of where things stand.

“We’re in the very early stages of this discussion,” said Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo. “This is the first of many conversations about this subject.”

 

She first gave a presentation that began with three main reasons why the board and administration even considered a facilities study for closing a building: declining enrollment, financial pressures, and staffing and scheduling issues.

Ms. Nuciforo said enrollment has been in decline over the last several years, with the district graduating classes numbering between 100 and 120 students, but with Kindergarten classes that having somewhere between 65 and 75 students.

“At one time each of our buildings held about 600 students,” she said. “We now have just over 1,200 students in the district. So 600 students per building, it stands to reason we should start thinking about maybe whether we can fit into two.”

At the same time costs continue to go up for the district, but state aid isn’t keeping pace. The district is currently using reserves to pay some of its bills. Ms. Nuciforo said that if the district doesn’t start planning to save money now, those reserves could run out in the future.

“We’re trying to take a smart long-term approach to our finances,” she said. “We’re not in crisis, but we don’t want to get there down the road and then have to make snap decisions.”

The staffing and scheduling issues involve teachers’ travel time between buildings. Ms. Nuciforo said that as the number of students decline, more teachers move between buildings and that eliminating the travel time by closing a building would provide more flexibility in teachers’ schedules as well as make more time to meet with students.

The presentation then laid out milestones proposed by the facilities study. The group that conducted the study reviewed the existing space to determine which school would be the best candidate to close. They determined the Middle School building would make the most sense for a few reasons–its location off campus, its lack of parking, its age and the expense of maintaining it. The group also looked at the feasibility of moving grades 5-7 out of the Middle School building. They found that the 5th and 6th grades would fit very well into the Mary E. Dardess Elementary (MED) School, both physically and programmatically. The 7th and 8th grades could fit into the High School, but there would need to be a few extra classrooms added.

The projected potential cost savings for consolidating the students into two buildings would be $681,858. Ms. Nuciforo said that this is a conservative figure. The group projected this number based on the assumption that the Middle School building would be kept after the students were moved. She said the savings would be greater if the building was sold.

The report also identifies other concerns that would need to be addressed. Since both the Chatham Public Library and the bus garage are attached to the Middle School building, it is unclear what would happen to them. As for interscholastic sports, the high school gym and fields are used “quite a bit” for practice, according to Ms. Nuciforo, so consolidating schools would provide a challenge in that regard. Also, the report suggested parking will need to be reexamined.

One district resident asked what would happen if the school saw an increase in enrollment or a larger class came through after consolidation. Ms. Nuciforo said that each class right now is progressively smaller, so it will only get easier over the next few years. She said that the few extra classrooms the district would add would provide flexibility to accommodate those types of “bubbles” of larger classes. Board member David O’Connor added that the school would probably play it safe and hold onto the building after moving the students anyway.

When asked about the possibility of building a wing at the high school to accommodate the 7th and 8th grades, Ms. Nuciforo said that the community at large would have to support a project like that due to the great expense. “It’s always an issue when you move younger students with older students. It’s always something people get nervous about,” she said. She added that it’s more about keeping them separated during common times like lunch and gym, which Chatham would be able to do, according to the report. “A lot of schools make it work very well,” said the superintendent.

She said that 2014 or 2015 would be the earliest anything would happen if the option gets approved. She said the reason the 5th grade is already being moved to MED is programmatic and is not related to space or financial concerns.

Ms. Nuciforo emphasized that the district is developing a plan, not reacting to a crisis. “We really are fortunate that we have time to plan out and think about what makes sense to do,” she said. “If things go the way they seem to be going, then there’s no reason for us to do anything until we’re ready to do it.”

There will be another informational town hall meeting to present the facility study findings again on September 11 at 6:30 PM in the Chatham High School library.

At the Board of Education’s regular August 14 meeting held before the town hall session, the board also:

*Discussed a new school policy for use of mobile devices. Ms. Nuciforo said that they realize mobile devices can have educational uses in school, so they are working on a new policy that allows the use of them in school. However, students will still be subject to the district’s Internet policy.

*Approved a tax levy of $19,958,975

*Adopted a new K-12 mathematics curriculum

*Adopted a new grade 6 project-based technology curriculum.

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