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Panel favors Scotland or Farmingville; parents favor none

Last week’s regular Board of Education meeting turned into an unofficial public hearing on the school closing plan when some 37 people, mostly parents, pleaded with the board to ditch their plans to shutter a building.

The public comments followed a presentation by the facilities committee charged with recommending which school to close.

Last week, around 35 commenters condemned the closing plan at the committee’s public hearing.

The committee recommended either Farmingville or Scotland, but said a redistricting study should be done to figure out which.

The committee also recommended that a school not be closed until 2015-16, based on a conservative estimate of when the projected number of students could fit into five buildings.

“The committee believes that the school which would have the least  adverse impact on all of Ridgefield’s children and families as well as fill the requirements of the Ridgefield Board of Education’s motion, be the one that is closed for the period of low enrollment,” the recommendation says.

Farmingville was rated “most desirable” to close according to the numerical score sheet each school was given based on a number of criteria. Scotland was second, followed by Veterans Park and Branchville, which tied for third place.

The largest and most recently renovated Barlow Mountain and Ridgebury were rated “least desirable” to close.

Irene Burgess, chairman of the committee, said she was happy to be done with that part of the work. “While we worked together well, I don’t think anybody is going to miss this,” she said.

While Ms. Burgess is finished with the committee work, she’s still on the Board of Education, which has to ultimately decide which school to close now that the committee has made its recommendation.

She acknowledged the move was unpopular with some — particularly elementary parents.

Speakers Monday, including some repeat speakers from last week, largely echoed sentiment from the public hearing. They called for in-depth study, called the criteria the committee used arbitrary, questioned the grading system the committee invented to rank each school, and rejected the significance of the financial savings.

Not all Board of Education members favor a closing.

“We have a golden opportunity to lower class sizes,” said school board member Karen Sulzinsky, who has long opposed the school closing plan. She said lowering class sizes “is the best ‘program,’” referring to the idea championed by closing proponents that closing a school will free up dollars to improve educational programming.

“This is what I’m hearing,” said Board of Education member Mike Raduazzo, who also opposes the closing, gesturing toward the audience, referring to the overwhelming turnout among closing opponents while proponents have been silent recently.

Ms. Burgess agreed that opponents of the closing were being better represented than proponents.

“I do think that those people have to pick up a pen or an email,” she said, referring to people who back the idea of a closure. “If they don’t, then nobody hears what they’re saying.”

“We completely understand people’s objections to the criteria we used,” she said later. “While we don’t agree with them, we understand why the objections exist.”

Ms. Burgess sought to tie the closing to budget constraints and expressed frustration that while the board had heard so vocally about a school closing, budget referendum turnout remains low.

“Voting turnout is pathetic in this town. It’s about 3% of the population on non-presidential years,” she said, adding later, “That means a lot of parents aren’t voting.”

That figure was actually 2,015, or around 8% of the town population (12.5% of eligible voters) in the May vote.

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“We have a very difficult time as a Board of Ed passing budgets. When people have a particular issue that they like or that they’re interested in they come out and speak to it.”

A quick comparison of the voter list and the list of commenters at the last two meetings, put together by Board of Education Chairman Austin Drukker and Ms. Burgess, shows that at the last meeting just under half of the speakers actually voted.

There’s some trouble in trying to put an exact percentage on how many commenters voted, since a record of speakers at a meeting is much less formal than voting records. For instance, some people on the sign-up sheet never spoke when they were called on, and some of the names, handwritten before the meeting, could have been misread or the speakers might not go by the legal name they use for voting.

“It’s just very disappointing that with all the work that we do that there’s people that can’t take a half-hour out of their day to vote and back our school system,” Mr. Drukker said. He added that there are “people who have children or grandchildren in the school yet they’ll take the time to come and chastise us for our work.”

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