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School closing: How many boards does it take?

Though members of the town’s big three boards have generally expressed support for closing a school, there was plenty of disagreement last week about who should officially back the plan — and share the backlash from parents.

The Board of Education voted to close a school, but only if, among other conditions, the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance “reaffirm” their support for the idea.

It’s not guaranteed that will happen.

Speaking to a packed room of parents who objected to the closing plans, Board of Education Chairman Austin Drukker gave some background Monday, Nov. 26, about how the school board started down the path toward closing a school.

He said the board began looking at closing a school years ago when a “previous Board of Finance was very aggressive with us” to close a school. Now that they’ve done much of the prep work, they sought to make sure the other boards still feel strongly they should go ahead with a closing.

“We listened to them,” he said. “They need to be respectful of us in reverse.”

At the annual tri-board meeting last Tuesday, Parent Bethany Agliardo asked all three boards about the pressure Mr. Drukker referred to.

“I don’t know if that pressure is real, if that pressure is imagined, if that pressure is left over from the previous Board of Finance,” she said.

“There’s been no pressure put on to close, open or anything,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

“We never said ‘You must, you must.’ In no way pressure had been exerted — at least not from our board.”

Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer took a similar position.

“There’s been no pressure that I know of from this board,” he said.

“This is good,” said Mr. Drukker, the school chair. “Because now you’re telling us we don’t need to close a school.”

“I’m not saying that,” Mr. Ulmer replied.

Jill Bornstein, a finance board member who also served on the school closing committee — and had attended Monday night’s meeting — sought to bridge the gap.

Discuss this on The Ridgefield Forum.

“What I heard last night,” she said, “before they do any more work, they’d like it affirmed by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance.”

The school board motion specifically states:

“After reviewing the work of the facilities committee, the Board of  Selectmen and Board of Finance must affirm that a school closure and its net forecasted savings (including forecasted costs involved when enrollment increases beyond 2000) represent an effective and desired means of assuring  greater budget efficiency and more efficient use of town resources.”

“We’re not asking you to make a decision,” school board member Chris Murry said.

“It sounds like what you’re asking is: Is it worth it to the town, for $1 million a year,” finance board member Paul Sutherland said.

“Do you agree this is an efficient use of town resources?” school board member Irene Burgess asked.

Mr. Marconi suggested that School Business Manager Paul Hendrickson and Town Controller Kevin Redmond collaborate on the presentation.

The consensus appeared to be that the selectmen and finance board would hear presentations on the school board’s research, and affirm not the decision on which school to close, but the general fiscal logic behind the closing.

Selectman Andy Bodner tried to frame the issue in terms he felt the school board members would relate to.

“If I were sitting on the Board of Education, I’d be looking at: I don’t have unlimited funds,” he said. “Dollars are tight. You have to make a decision: Do you put the money into bricks and mortar? Or do you put it into programs? Because that is what this is really about.

“You also have two middle schools, and the high school, parents who care about programs that are cut.”

“I agree with you, Andy,” said school board member John Palermo. “We won’t be able to afford the programs at the middle schools and the high school, because we’ll be carrying the cost of infrastructure in the elementary schools.”

It was noted that the projections for elementary school population don’t stop in the vicinity of 2,000 in the next few years, but continue downward.

“You can look at those numbers, you can make an argument for closing a second elementary school,” Selectman Bodner said.

School board members said the bottom of the elementary population trough was projected to be “1,400 and change” as Ms. Burgess put it.

Superintendent Deborah Low said demographer Hyung Chung’s numbers — in his triplicate high, medium and low  format — were: a ‘high’ bottoming out at  1,538; a ‘medium’ bottom of 1,515; and a low bottom of 1,485.”

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark wondered about a statement from Ms. Low had made — and has found herself clarifying many times since.

“At 2,000 we’d have to ‘squish’ the students into five buildings — is that true or not?” Ms. Kozlark asked.

“In a decision four years ago, it looked like, when enrollment is 2,000, student would fit into five elementary schools,” Ms. Low said.

“As I’m getting more and more precise, that’s where you push it out a little. The stakes are so high: You lose 17 classrooms.

“Could they fit? The whole point is to offer the same quality education. Let’s go where you feel comfortable,” Ms. Low said.

School officials said they needed to refine the numbers from mathematical models and projections to look at the specific needs of actual school populations, building by building, to determine which year there would indeed be enough room to fit the roughly 2,000 students in five buildings, as Ms. Low had originally projected.

There’d been a concern that they might be a room or two short somewhere, so the tentative year for a closing had been pushed back from 2014-15 to 2015-16.

“We had to be sure we’d have room for special ed, occupational therapy, physical therapy,” Ms. Burgess said.

“This is just doing numbers in an office,” Superintendent Low said. “You’ve got to get closer to actual redistricting.”

Mr. Bodner wondered whether there might be wiggle room in the opposite direction if enrollment is pretty close to the target.

“If you came to a conclusion closing a school could save $1 million,” Mr. Bodner said, “Surely rather than delay a decision for a year — with $1 million in play — surely there must be a way to deal with one or two classrooms.”

Special education was a wild card, Ms. Low said.

“Every year in every building differs,” she said. “How many students with autism do you have? How many medically fragile students do you have?”

School board members said they couldn’t close a school unless they were confident all the students, and programs they need could fit into five buildings — so the quality of education wouldn’t be diminished for anyone.

“You need to tell us what year that is,” Finance Board Chairman Ulmer told the school board. “We’re not going to tell you what year that is.”

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