The Ridgefield Board of Education is preparing a presentation for the Board of Selectmen regarding its proposal to close one elementary school due to declining enrollment.
During Monday's meeting at the Town Hall Annex, board members continued their discussion of the controversial proposal, which if approved could lead to the closing of one of the town's six elementary schools by 2015-2016, for an estimated operational savings of about $1 million per year.
The board-appointed Facilities Committee, which is charged with determining which school to close, recently recommended postponing the decision for one year: The board had initially proposed closing a school as early as 2014-2015, however for scheduling reasons this is no longer being viewed as feasible.
Chairman Austin Drukker said the board would be commissioning a firm to do a redistricting study that would help the Facilites Committee determine which school to close and which neighborhoods would be impacted as a result.
"If we do a [redistricting] study now, we are only going to end up having to do another one later," Drukker said, adding that for this reason it might be prudent for the board to have the study done "down the road... so we don't have to do it twice."
"I'm thinking January 2014," he said.
Enrollment projections will be the main criteria used in determining whether to close a school — and if so, which one. The board voted in May to close a school once enrollment dips below 2,000 students and is projected to stay below that level for 10 years. Currently Ridgefield's enrollment is about 2,200 students — but it has been declining at a faster rate than previously projected for the past several years.
The board has identified three schools which are ideal candidates for closure: Veterans Park, Scotland and Farmingville. The other three schools — Branchville, Ridgebury and Barlow Mountain — were ruled out based on recent renovations as well as their locations. Maximum class size policy is also being considered as part of the proposal.
Board member and Facilities Committee Chair Irene Burgess said there should be no more than 18 months between when the redistricting study is done and the school closing, to ensure that the closing is based on the most current enrollment projections possible.
Part of the district's challenge is not only reacting to declining enrollment but also rectifying lopsided distribution of students across the K-5 schools.
Board member John Paulermo asked if it would be "prudent to address the imbalance between Ridgebury, which has five empty classrooms," and Farmingville, "which is full," in the interim period before a school is closed.
"I think we ought to look at balancing out, if not even in a minor way — like we did with Scotts Ridge and East Ridge [middle schools several years ago]," Paulermo said, adding that this should probably be done next year if it is to be worthwhile.
Burgess said Paulermo was "raising an excellent point," but added that if the district decided to proceed with the idea, she would want assurance that the families who are redistricted wouldn't need to be moved again in a subsequent redistricting after a school closes.
Drukker said the five empty classrooms at Ridgebury in theory have capacity for up to 100 redistricted kids (20 per class). Board member Karen Sulzinsky pointed out that "you couldn't move that many kids and promise that none of them would have to be redistricted again."
Several board members said for this reason it would be more prudent to redistrict "just a handful of kids" in order to balance the inequities between the schools.
With regard the timing of the presentation to the selectmen, Paulermo suggested they do it this spring as part of the budget process, since the board must include enrollment projections in its budget request anyway.
Several board members said it will be just as important to determine how the staff is re-allocated across the five facilities as it is determining which one to close.
Drukker said the board will present "several scenarios" to the selectmen, in terms of which school to close and the potential impact. School officials will also present a cost savings analysis for each scenario.
One alternative the board is expected to present is the concept of repurposing the school to be closed into some sort of a town facility — such as a child care center or recreational facility. This way the facility could more easily be reopened as a school, should the district hit another high water mark for enrollment at a later point in time.
Drukker said the infrastructure added to Barlow and Ridgebury in the recent renovation/expansions was never fully utilized — which is a strong indication that the district may not need to reopen the sixth school for quite some time, possibly not for another "20 or 30 years." He said based on the current trend of declining enrollment and the "sheer number of open classrooms," the board should be able to make a strong case for a school closure.
The board members agreed that they should gather as much information as possible and include it all in the report they present to the Board of Selectmen during the budget process.
For more than two years the board has been debating how to best reconfigure the district to make it more operationally efficient in light of declining enrollment. At the center of the debate is 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.
Many school parents have expressed their displeasure with the plan during past public hearings — some contending that it will backfire and actually cost the town more money should enrollment start increasing again within a few years of the closure, resulting in the need to reopen the facility.
In April the board released the results of an informal town-wide questionaire 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.