School board: Closing presents more risks than rewards

Not enough savings and too many risks — that was the opinion of both parents and members of the Board of Education Monday night in reaction to the proposed closing of Scotland Elementary School.

The board moved its meeting to Scotts Ridge Middle School to accommodate a crowd of 100 or more residents interested in giving their opinions on various options the school board is considering to address the district’s current enrollment decline.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Karen Baldwin said the school-closing option, which pulls fifth grade out of the elementary schools and converts the middle schools to a fifth-eighth grade configuration, would save the district less than $200,000 in personnel costs — with an additional $751,665 being saved in capital improvement cost avoidance and $55,000 in annual operational costs being shifted to the town to maintain the closed school.

Board members David Cordisco and Tracey O’Connor spoke against the proposed reconfiguration, citing the redistricting of as many as 30% of elementary students and the social and emotional challenges fifth graders would face if placed in one of the town’s two middle schools.

The board was presented with two other scenarios from consultant Mike Zuba on how to address the enrollment decline:

  • Aligning the two middle schools to fit the district’s current elementary school boundaries and creating an even “three and three” split, with graduating fifth graders from Scotland, Barlow Mountain, and Ridgebury going to Scotts Ridge, and graduating fifth graders from Branchville, Farmingville, and Veterans Park going to East Ridge.
  • Aligning the middle schools, creating a “three and three” split and balancing elementary enrollment through “pocket redistricting” that would shift students from Barlow Mountain to Ridgebury and students from Scotland to Barlow Mountain.

Eight parents spoke against the three scenarios, questioning the proposed savings associated with each move and the emotional problems each would present Ridgefield students in the future.

“This is small, short-term thinking. Just how resilient do we expect these children to be?” asked Amanda Mason.

“We should not settle on pocket redistricting. It is not necessary and it is not healthy for our students. And that matters. Please do better than this.”

Around 100 residents attended the meeting. A majority of them left following the two-hour discussion, which the board said would be continued at its Jan. 23 meeting.

Meghan Troy, a Ridgefield parent who teaches in Scarsdale, N.Y., spoke about the drawbacks of moving fifth graders to middle schools.

“If you look at middle schools where there is fifth grade, those kids are often kept isolated,” she said.

“In terms of teaching and learning, it is more appropriate for fifth graders to remain in elementary school. Adding additional time for students to transition takes away from learning and valuable instruction. I would strongly oppose making that change.”

Brad Sanderson, another elementary school parent, said he didn’t agree with any of the proposed options.

“Big changes require big reasons,” he said. “How big of a reason are we talking about in terms of the underutilization at the middle school? It seems this is something the schools can handle.

“Where I stand, it feels like we don’t fully understand what the cost of doing nothing is going forward.”

50/50 split

The consultant told the board that no elementary school students would be redistricted under the “three and three” model, which could be implemented as early as the 2017-18 school year.

The reconfiguration would shift about 10% of East Ridge’s population to Scotts Ridge, evening out middle school enrollment.

However, if approved, this option would eventually cause space problems at East Ridge, where classroom use would drop below 60% during 2021-22, Zuba said.

The second option would redistrict 4% of elementary school students to address slight overcrowding at Scotland.

“Pocket redistricting” would help balance out enrollment at Scotland, Barlow and Ridgebury, Zuba said.

Closing Scotland

The closing Scotland option would move all fifth graders to the middle schools.

The district pattern would then be aligned to new pre-K through grade four elementary school districts, keeping the 60/40 split between both middle schools. Between 25% and 30% of elementary school students and 7% of middle school students would be redistricted.

Scotland has been singled out for closing because of its size — it’s one of the smallest buildings — and its proximity to Barlow and Ridgebury, the two elementary schools with the most desks available.

Scotland is in the same location as Barlow, minimizing redistricting impact in transportation and travel time for those moved there.

It also presents the biggest cost avoidance. Scotland is the elementary school with the most capital demands.

Moving teachers

Baldwin said that closing a school doesn’t necessarily mean a great loss in the number of teachers.

Closing Scotland poses a loss of seven employees: the school principal, the principal’s secretary, the school nurse, the office para-educator, and three custodians.

This represents $451,703 in salary savings. However, moving fifth graders to the middle schools requires hiring an additional classroom teacher as well as two art teachers and a part-time para-educator, taking $242,303 away from those initial savings.

After subtracting unemployment expenses, the total projected savings are left at $190,184, Baldwin said.