Chatham sets date for consolidation funding vote

CHATHAM–Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo has presented the Board of Education with a proposed timeline for the consolidation of three schools into two and the capital improvements that will make the change possible. The district is currently anticipating a November 19 referendum that would seek voter approval for funding upgrades to the district’s campus.

To address looming financial pressures and declining enrollment, the board voted in June to approve a plan that will remove the students from the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue and consolidate them into the remaining two buildings. The plan, which will take effect in the fall of 2015, moves the 6th grade to the Mary E. Dardess (MED) Elementary School, and grades 7 and 8 to the High School. The plan currently under consideration would spend $13.8M to accommodate the move.

Ms. Nuciforo said at last week’s board meeting that the board needs to agree on a final budget for the project by September 24. There will be a town-hall-style meeting regarding the proposed project in September, community meetings in October and a public hearing on November 5. District taxpayers will then vote on the project November 19. She said the paperwork has already been started to on the environmental review of the project.

She also outlined the project’s components and costs, and she asked the board to think about what it ultimately wants to propose to the public this fall. Ms. Nuciforo said the district’s Facilities Committee has discussed “needs versus wants,” and she believes all of the components in the current proposal are needed for a successful consolidation.

The components include:

MED gymnasium addition and renovation ($3,384,237)

High School fitness room addition ($1,088,967)

High School classroom renovations ($398,153)

High School auditorium renovation ($408,363)

High School music room addition ($2,094,900)

High School technology room renovation ($299,466)

High School library renovations ($152,455)

High School guidance, nurse, and main office renovations ($465,533)

MED cafeteria renovations ($245,018)

High School cafeteria renovations ($367,526)

High School toilet room renovations ($63,705)

Parking lot and drive upgrades ($2,722,417)

MED downstairs classroom floor renovations ($54,448)

Addition of four new classrooms at High School ($1,543,610)

Teacher workroom renovations ($34,779)

Middle School HVAC work ($40,836)

Campus security upgrades ($435,587).

Ms. Nuciforo added that a lot of “wants” were filtered out during the process of developing the plan. Board member David O’Connor said he believed more “wants” might still be in the project, including the addition of seating at the MED gym and the additions of a music room and fitness room at the High School.

“They’re educationally fabulous, but can we find a way of working around them if we don’t have them?” he asked. “I think there’s a possibility the answer is Yes.”

Ms. Nuciforo said the gym expansion is necessary to bring it to a full-size gym and allow for assemblies and programs that currently can’t be held due to lack of space.

Mr. O’Connor asked why, rather than expanding the MED gym, the high school auditorium could not be used, and Ms. Nuciforo said the auditorium is already heavily used that it would be difficult to bring elementary students efficiently from one building to another.

Board member Muriel Faxon said she sees all of the items in the plan as needs and that, with the savings from consolidation, the project will add no cost for taxpayers. Savings from consolidation is projected to be at least $797,809 per year, and Business Administrator Michael Chudy has said at recent meetings that the $13.8M capital project, after the district applies its capital reserve funds and receives state aid, would cost $437,814 per year for 15 years.

Part of the consolidation calls for the district to repurpose the Middle School building once students move out. Ms. Nuciforo said possibilities include using the building for daycare, small businesses and as a site for college courses. She wants to start a taskforce in September made up of board members, community members, parents, and administrators who will develop a proposal and application process. She said she has already been approached by people inquiring about leasing space in the building, so she said she wants a process in place by January for proposals to be made to the district.

“By this time next year, we want to have decisions in place so people have a year to plan,” she said.

The board will hear a presentation from EDWorks, a company that helps school districts implement “early college high school” models. Ms. Nuciforo said that if the district were to hire this company, EDWorks would organize everything for the school, setting up a model of college courses based on student needs.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to do this right,” she said “and I’m glad we gave ourselves the two years to do it.”

Also at the July 30 board meeting, each building principal gave a report on the past school year’s academic results. State test results were not yet available. The theme of each presentation was there will be more rigor involved.

MED Principal Kristen Reno said that in the fall of 2012, 72% of 1st grade students were reading at or above grade level. By the end of spring, it rose to 94%; 2nd grade rose from 73% to 84%; 3rd grade reading at grade level went from 63% to 65%. Grades 4 and 5 declined from 75% to 70%, and from 77% to 72%, respectively. She said this may be due to higher standards. In math, 85% of 3rd grade students were performing at or above grade level both in the fall and in spring. Grades 4 and 5 dropped from 76% to 73%, and from 79% to 78%, respectively.

Newly appointed Middle School Principal Amy Potter presented the numbers for grades 6-8, reporting that 78% of 6th grade students began the school year reading at or above grade level but the percentage declined to 76% in spring; 7th grade increased from 79% to 80%, and 8th grade jumped from 69% to 76%. Math performance declined in all three grades, as grade 6 grade level performance decreased from 83% to 78%; 7th from 87% to 84%, and 8th from 71% to 70%.

Ms. Nuciforo said the comparisons for both buildings were not pure because they have both seen changes to assessments, and are “struggling with an apples-to-oranges situation.”

High School Principal John Thorsen presented his building’s mastery rates for this year: English dropped from 66% to 53%; US history and Earth Science are both at 46%, Living Environment 45%; physics 26%; and geometry and algebra both 24%. The rate for number of high school students who passed all of their courses went up from 76% last year to 87% this year. Last year 28 students failed three or more courses; this year, only 11 were in that category. Assistant Principal Terry Bordell said referrals have cut back as well, from 1,152 in 2012 to only 358 this year.

Mr. O’Connor wanted to know what more could be done to improve academics. “It’s a feeling I have that our best students are not competitive for admission into the top colleges in this country,” he said. He suggested improving enrichment activities.

Ms. Nuciforo said the enrichment programs are not the problem. She said Chatham had lacked focus on the “core of what we were doing in the classroom” but that the district has been raising standards and implementing the rigorous Common Core standards and the progress begun to show. She acknowledged that while there has been progress, the results are still not where school officials want to see them.

“We’re starting to see students perform the way we expect students in Chatham to perform,” she said. “None of this is a one-year fix.”


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