District foresees long road before school is closed

CHATHAM–The School Board heard more questions and concerns last week from the community regarding the future of the middle school building at a second town hall-style meeting called to discuss the option of closing the oldest of the district’s three school buildings.

The district is exploring ways to function more efficiently, and one approach considered involves consolidating students in two buildings and closing the middle school.

A facilities study conducted by an independent group looked into whether that would work and how effective it would be. During the September 11 meeting in the High School auditorium, school Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo presented the facilities study’s findings the three reasons why the board and administration have even considered closing a building: declining enrollment, financial pressures, and staffing and scheduling issues.
Ms. Nuciforo said enrollment has been in decline for the last several years, and that trend is expected to continue. This year Chatham’s senior class has over 100 students, while the kindergarten class has just 70.
According to the study, grades K-6 could fit into the elementary school both physically and programmatically. Grades 7-12 could fit into the high school building, though Ms. Nuciforo said it would be tight if the move happened immediately. She said that the high school would need four more classrooms and three or four more music rooms to properly accommodate students.
The projected potential cost savings for consolidation would be $681,858. District resident David Stickles asked whether the board is taking into account the extra costs of adding space to the high school as well as continuing to maintain the middle school building if the district decides to keep it. Ms. Nuciforo said that the potential savings is a conservative figure based on the assumption that the district would retain the middle school building. If the board decides to combine students into two buildings, the district could sell the middle school building or hold onto it in case enrollment rises again.
If the middle school building is kept, Ms. Nuciforo said that district offices could move there and other space in the building could be leased out to generate income. As for construction needed at the high school, she said the district has capital reserves of about $2 million that could be used as well as state aid.
Resident Craig Simmons asked whether closing the building would mean less state aid, since there would be fewer buildings. Ms. Nuciforo
replied that state aid is based on the number of students, not the number of buildings. “The state is encouraging districts to be more efficient,” she said. “The fact that we’re doing this to be more efficient will work in our favor, not against us.”

Ms. Nuciforo emphasized that the board is trying to take a long-term approach to the issue. She said school officials don’t want to wait until they are in a position of having to make snap decisions with no preparation. “There have been no decisions made,” she said. “We will have many conversations with the community as this goes forward.” Residents expressed concerns about the potential change, including the idea of combining 7th and 8th graders with high school students. Ms. Nuciforo pointed out that there are several districts in the state that are one-building K-12 districts. She said that if the system is structured in the right way and age appropriate privileges are maintained, it can work. “The trick is to do it right,” she said.

Ms. Nuciforo was also asked about the impact of consolidation on class size and the modified sports program for younger students. She said neither would be affected by the closure of the middle school. The issue with modified sports, Ms. Nuciforo said, is not about the school building but about how other districts are cutting their modified sports programs, which makes it more challenging because there fewer teams to play. The district residents who attended last week’s meeting asked the board to go not only by the numbers in the report but by what’s best for the students.
Judy Skype said there are a lot of things not easily measured, citing the example of teachers spending extra time with students when necessary and saying they make a Chatham a good school. She worries that these things like may be sacrificed. Mr. Simmons said he understands trying to save money, but he added, “Kids should be at the top of the list”.
Ms. Nuciforo responded that “our first priority is to have a vital educational program. The whole point of this is that we’ve been saying over the last few years: What do we want our program to look like and where can we trim costs in non-programmatic ways in order to have the best possible program we can have?”
She added that the reason the board has taken so much time with this issue is to be sure to address all of these issues.
Among other issues that still need to be addressed ahead of any decision of the fate of the school are the bus garage and athletic fields, and the Chatham Public Library, which is housed at the school. Also, parking at the elementary and high schools would become difficult after a move. Ms. Nuciforo said that the board will have to discuss these matters.
The board’s goal is to make a decision by the end of the school year. If a decision is made to close the middle school, it likely would not
happen until 2015. “We have not decided to do anything,” said board member David O’Connor. “We have to be responsible about trying to find ways to provide the best education.”

 

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