Chatham poised to suspend downsizing

CHATHAM–A year after district voters rejected the $13.8-million capital project proposal, Chatham’s Board of Education is looking to take its consolidation plan off the table. Board members agreed that while consolidating students into two buildings will eventually be necessary, it would not be feasible to execute the plan in the fall of 2015 without a capital project. Where the next steps should begin and the pace at which those steps are taken is where members of the board disagreed.

The discussion of consolidation began four years ago, when the board at the time began looking into ways to save money after seeing reports of declining enrollment and looming financial pressures that were said to threaten educational programming down the line. After studies were done, the board determined that it would be feasible to move students out of the middle school building on Woodbridge Avenue and fit all of the district’s students into the high school and Mary E. Dardess Elementary School. To accommodate the consolidation of students into the remaining two buildings, the board developed a capital project plan costing $13.8 million that called for renovations and additional classrooms that the district said were needed in order for the schools to offer the programs they wanted after consolidation.

The district projected a savings of over $450,000 a year from consolidation. The plan for the middle school building was to “repurpose” it, possibly with space for small businesses and college courses offered at the building.

The plan to consolidate, which met with strong community reactions both for and against, was made official on June 25 of last year, when the board voted in favor of consolidating in the fall of 2015. The capital project proposal, however, was in the hands of the community. On November 19 of last year, district voters rejected the proposal by a vote of 481 for the plan and 668 opposed.

At the November 18 board meeting, members discussed rescinding the June 2013 resolution to consolidate next year, since it now would mean consolidating with no capital project. “We have a resolution that we would consolidate in 2015,” said Board President Melony Spock. “We need to change that resolution.”

Board members agreed that consolidation should not occur next year since there is no money to improve and reconfigure the schools. But they also agreed there is still a need to consolidate in the future.

“I absolutely see the need for consolidation. However, I don’t think it is in the best interests of the students or education to do it without a capital project,” said member Terri Conte. “We don’t have the room.”

Business administrator Michael Chudy presented a graph to the board that projects the district will have depleted its savings by the 2021-22 school year, which he said would mean “major cuts.”

The board discussed what the next steps might be. Some suggested starting the process from the beginning. Ms. Spock said she believes “consolidation is inevitable,” but said she wanted to “slow down the process” and talk more with the community, while looking at other ways to save money.

Other members noted an upcoming building study the district will be required to do. Craig Simmons and Chris Kelly suggested having the study done by an independent group and using that to move forward.

Member James Marks disagreed with starting over, suggesting the board begin working on another capital project proposal for consolidation.

“What’s really going to change?” asked Mr. Marks, regarding the proposal to start over. He referred to the financial trends and declining enrollment.

“In keeping physical space we don’t genuinely need, we’re diverting money from program. What we’re doing is maintaining status quo instead of delivering a better product,” said Mr. Marks. “I’m not sure what starting at the beginning is going to accomplish other than more studies and more time closer to running out of money. We’re going to end up pretty much back in the same spot.”

Former board member David O’Connor, who was serving on the board when the district began this process, spoke during public comment, saying that when the board started the discussion in 2010, they “were looking at fiscal crisis.”

“Please don’t do what Washington does, and let it be for a future Congress and future President,” he said.

Jennifer Lindberg agreed. “We can’t just keep pushing it off for someone else to make the decision,” she said. “We cannot consolidate next year, but we can’t take it off the table immediately.”

The board will likely vote to cancel the June 2013 resolution at its next meeting, but Mr. Marks said the new resolution should include a new deadline for the board to develop a new consolidation plan.

“We can’t keep saying that we’re not ready. Let’s get off our chairs and get started,” said Mr. Marks. “It’s been a year. Let’s get started.”

Board member Michael Clark suggested the fall of 2015 as the deadline for a new plan to be developed.

The board will hold a workshop meeting on December 2 and its next business meeting is December 16. Both are at 6:30 p.m. in the High School library.

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