The Ridgefield Board of Education on Tuesday voted 6-3 to establish a facilities committee that will determine due to declining enrollment.
The vote to establish the committee comes just weeks after parents .
The yet-to-be-formed committee has until December 2012 to recommend "the particular school that will be closed, if subsequently the board determines to close a school…" as per a resolution approved by the board. In addition the committee will be tasked with formulating a redistricting plan, based on the school it says should be closed.
However, the Board of Education won't make a final decision whether to close a school until after it reviews the committee's report. That means it likely won't make a decision until next year.
The board also approved a procedure which it will follow in determining whether a school should be be closed. The resolution stipulates that the district's total K-5 student enrollment "must be approximately 2,000 students or fewer," in order for the board to proceed with closing a school (currently the district has about 2,200 students). Furthermore enrollment projections must show that K-5 enrollment will remain under 2,000 students for the next 10 years (recent forecast shows enrollment dipping to 1,618 students by 2018). What's more, no school will be closed sooner than 24 months from the board's approval of the motion on May 29.
The facilities committee is to include members of the Board of Education, Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, P&Z Commission, legal counsel, Town Director of Planning, Town Business Manager and the school administration. The resolution does not state the total number of seats the committee will have.
Interestingly the attorney-reviewed resolution states that the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance "must affirm that a school closure and its net forecasted savings represent an effective and desired means of assuring greater budget efficiency and more efficient use of town resources." Board Chairman Austin Drukker said "if the Board of Selectmen says don't close the school... then we won't close the school." However several board members said they felt decision should be ultimately be up to the Board of Education.
The board's vote to establish the committee reportedly comes after more than two years of debate of how to best reconfigure the district to make it more operationally efficient in light of both declining and shifting enrollment.
With Ridgefield's K-5 enrollment shrinking at a faster rate than forecast, the board, at the urging of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance, has been exploring whether closing a school facility would reap enough savings to make it worth the hassle. While the district would incur one-time costs associated with redistricting, it would reap savings over time by reducing fixed costs associated with running and maintaining a sixth facility.
The school administration estimates that the cost savings resulting from closing one elementary school could be as high as $1 million per year. Board member Richard Steinhart said if the board had that additional money in its budget each year it would be able to add more programs to the K-5 curriculum.
Steinhart pointed out that most of the Board of Education's budget, this year , is associated with fixed costs over which the board has no control.
"We actually control only about $7 million of it," Steinhart said, "So, if we can get an additional $1 million that we can have control of each year, then that can go a long way toward adding new programs."
Board member Michael Raduazzo however questioned whether any savings realized through redistricting would in fact be at the board's discretion.
"More likely it would be a savings to the town," Raduazzo said. "Closing a school does not guarantee us any amount of money."
Several board members said it would be their hope that the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance would be willing to let some of the savings remain in the school budget for additional K-5 programs.
Some board members said they agreed with school parents who argued during the public hearing that more data needs to be presented to the community so that residents can better understand the justification for closing one school, the possible repercussions, and the alternatives that are being considered, thus the board will be bringing more information to the public.
Meanwhile the district recently released the results of an informal showing that a majority of school parents favor keeping all six elemenatry schools open.
A total of 914 residents, 801 of them school parents, responded to the online survey. Of those, 612 favored leaving the district configured as is; 73 favored an option of redistricting to three neighborhoods each with a K-2 and 3-5 arrangement; and 229 favored closing one school.