CHATHAM–The Board of Education voted 8-1 Tuesday night to close the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue and consolidate students into the district’s remaining two school buildings. The move will be effective following the 2014 school year. New board member Craig Simmons was the sole opponent of the resolution.
The decision to consolidate means that beginning in the fall 2015, the 6th grade will be moved to the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School, and grades 7 and 8 will be relocated to the High School building. The board began in 2010 to explore efficiencies and savings in response to declining enrollment and financial pressures. According to the team that conducted a facilities study for the district, Chatham would realize about $450,000 in net savings and cost avoidance per year resulting from consolidation.
“Downsizing our infrastructure makes sense. The facts line up,” said board member David O’Connor. “We’re cutting costs and providing more money to the educational program.”
Before the vote, during the public comment session, district resident Wayne Coe said a petition was submitted to the board with 167 signatures of those opposed to closing the Middle School. The petition, he said, called for the board to delay the vote by a year to consider alternative proposals.
District Clerk Deborah Pottenburgh said she reviewed the petition and found that the petition contained a duplicate signature and five more that were illegible. She said she could only verify 147 of the names.
Board president Melony Spock said the board considers the document an “opinion petition” that is part of public input on the plan.
In discussing the suggestion to delay the vote for a year, most of the board agreed that waiting would not produce any gain. “The longer we wait, the more opportunity there is for this not to be a careful decision,” said James Marks. “We have limited time, and we need to move on with the next step.”
Mike Clark, present by videoconference, said he hears people tell him that Chatham’s situation is not an emergency one. “Actually, we are in an emergency. It’s just not happening today,” he said. “We can see when the surpluses run out.”
Board member Craig Simmons, who was sworn in on May 22, opposed closing the Middle School building, but expressed frustration that more people from the community didn’t participate in the process.
“It’s too bad the people on the petition were not crammed into here a year ago,” he said. “Things would’ve been different.”
He also said he would like to see more proof that enrollment is shrinking before a decision was made.
“I think we have to keep looking at this and keep reviewing. We need the space and we already paid for this space,” he said. “We don’t need a capital project. We don’t need a huge bill 15 to 20 years down the road.”
Consolidation will mean spending $13.8M at the lower campus to better accommodate the Middle School students. Business administrator Michael Chudy said at previous meetings that some of the costs would be reimbursed by state funding and offset by savings realized from consolidation. Projections indicate the district could deplete its reserve funds by 2020 if all three buildings continued to be used as schools.
“If we don’t do something to better ourselves financially, then five years down the road we’re going to see such deep cuts to our academics,” said board member Muriel Faxon.
The district will seek voter approval to borrow the funds for the school upgrades this fall.