District sees stark choices unless Chatham school closes

CHATHAM–The Board of Education held its 5th town hall style meeting last week regarding its facilities study, with the topics this time ranging from the program for grades 7-12, capital improvements needed and revised projections showing bigger savings if the board decides to consolidate.

To address the impacts of declining enrollment and financial pressures, the board last year hired an outside consultant to conduct a facilities study exploring whether the district should consider closing one of its three school buildings. The study found that the most savings would be realized by shuttering the Middle School on Woodbridge Avenue, moving the 6th grade to the Elementary School and grades 7 and 8 to the High School. The board is scheduled to vote June 25 on the fate of the Middle School.

At its meeting last Thursday, March 28, the board began with a presentation outlining what a program for grades 7-12 would entail. Math teacher Mark Dwyer said that 25 teachers and administrators were on a committee charged with outlining what a 7-12 program should look like. Committee member Cynthia Herron said that the most flexibility would come from having one school that would “contain differentiated programs to meet the needs of both the middle and high school populations.”

Ms. Herron said the committee recommended sufficient space for teachers and an administrative structure to support the two groups of students, including a dean of students for grades 7 and 8, with students in those two grades using a space and a schedule separate from grades 9-12. She said the separation would also apply to lunch and physical education. The committee’s presentation advised that the district continue existing traditions like the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony.

Tracey Fuller, a math teacher and a member of the 7-12 program committee, said that items like evacuation plans and building codes of conduct would need to be reviewed and possibly revised if the district consolidates its programs in two buildings.

One district resident said the presentation was too vague and lacked specific information. District Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo responded saying that the specific program decisions have not been made. “These are the guidelines that will drive that decision making process,” she said.

School board President Melony Spock added that if the board decides to close the Middle School, consolidation would not happen until 2015. “I would hope that by that time when the students enter the building, that we absolutely would have more specifics as to what’s going to happen and meet all of the students’ needs,” she said.

One parent read aloud a letter written by her daughter, a 7th grader, who wrote that she would be “terrified” to go from elementary school straight to the high school. Other district residents voiced concerns at the potential for bullying.

Ms. Nuciforo said that 7th and 8th graders would not be treated like high school students; instead younger students would be segregated by physical space and scheduling. She the district has studied how consolidation affected other school districts and found that bullying has not been an issue between high school and middle school students.

Capital project options

The meeting also saw a presentation by Matt Monaghan, an architect from SEI Design Group, about capital improvements. Board member James Toteno there will be the need for capital construction even if the board decides not to consolidate. According to Mr. Monaghan, $5.7 million of capital work would be needed at all buildings if the Middle School remains open. This would include renovations to the high school and elementary schools, a technology upgrade for the high school auditorium, security upgrades to all school buildings, upgrades to the campus driveway, and middle school building upgrades. Mr. Monaghan said that several of these things would be needed regardless of what happens with the Middle School.

Ms. Nuciforo said the upgrade to the auditorium involves adding power and data outlets to about 150 seats throughout the room so it can be used as a testing space when the state mandates online testing in 2014. She said cafeteria upgrades would add serving lines so that students have more time to eat lunch. Currently, she said, students complain about standing in line for most of their lunch period with very little time to eat.

Mr. Monaghan said upgrades to the campus drive would reduce morning bottlenecks by adding an a second exit lane at Woodbridge Avenue and other improvements, including a wider drop-off area at the Elementary School and 49 additional parking spaces.

Mr. Monaghan presented two options if the district closes the Middle School building:

A $12.5 million project that includes many items mentioned in the “non-consolidation” project plus four new classrooms and a music room at the High School, as well renovations to existing classrooms and offices. The Elementary School building would see renovations to five lower-level classrooms and a renovation and expansion of the gymnasium

A $13 million plan that includes everything in the first option, but with a larger Elementary School gym with seating for 700 people.

Bigger savings

Frank Nizer, one of the consultants facilities study consultants, then presented updated financial projections related to consolidation. The study originally estimated an annual savings of $681,982 if the district closed the Middle School, but Mr. Nizer said last week that his firm was able to find additional savings, with new projections showing a $797,809 reduction in district costs the first year of consolidation, and $882,325 the second year.

Chatham’s School Business Administrator Michael Chudy said that after state aid reimbursements and borrowing for 15 years at a 3.25% interest rate, the net savings for first year of consolidation would be $502,838. If there is no consolidation, the capital project would cost local taxpayers almost $92,000 a year for 15 years.

Replying to a question about whether the board’s priority is the budget or the needs of students,

Ms. Nuciforo, said, “Both.”

“This isn’t money for the sake of money. This is money so we can maintain the programs for our students,” she said.

Current trends suggest the district will deplete its reserve funds by 2018 and the state’s property tax cap limits what the board can raise in tax revenue. Ms. Nuciforo said districts that have emptied their reserve funds and are forced to cut staff and programs.

Asked how much of the proposed capital work would be necessary if consolidation occurs, Ms. Nuciforo said that all the students in the districts would fit into the two buildings as they are, but she added that providing quality educational programs will require the proposed construction.

To concerns about the loss of teachers, Ms. Nuciforo said that declining enrollment and the lack of funds make staff reductions inevitable, regardless of the Middle School’s fate. She said there is a 40-year downward trend in enrollment. “We will lose more staff if we don’t’ consolidate or if we don’t find some other way to save that money,” she said.

Board member James Marks said that the school board’s agenda is to “provide the best education for what we can afford.” Adding, “We will have fewer choices when we run out of money,” he concluded, “It’s not prudent to wait and see.”

The board plans to hold the last town hall style meeting on consolidation June 11.



Comments are closed.