Looking ahead to 2012 : Naugatuck Schools

NHS Renovation

This artistic rendering shows what a typical classroom at Naugatuck High School could look like after renovation.

No more dungy locker rooms and perennially flooded fields for Greyhound athletes. No more outdated science labs and sharing scarce technology. No more cracks in the walls and asbestos in the floors. In November, Naugatuck voters authorized an $81 million renovation project to completely overhaul the high school and restore it to like-new condition.

The Building Committee hopes to break ground on the three-year project next November after the final design is approved by the state. The borough recently hired the architectural firm Kaestle Boos Associates to complete the work they did in the preliminary study and conceptual design.

“We’re anxious to see it move forward expeditiously and at the same time within budget,” said Board of Education Chair David Heller.

He said this project will set the stage for the success of future projects throughout the borough.

Students will continue to study in the school during the entire renovation process, which will be done in phases to work around classes. Heller said Principal Jan Saam will make arrangements to ensure that students are disrupted as little as possible during the renovations.

Mezzo said passing the referendum was the easy part of the high school renovation.

“I think it’s a very important initiative and it’s critical that we do this project right,” Mezzo said.

He said the borough must make sure the renovation is done at the highest quality and lowest cost possible.

“The public’s entrusted those that supported this renovation to do the project right and we intend to do so,” Mezzo said.

Long-term planning

The high school renovation process is but the first phase in a long-term plan for school facilities in Naugatuck.

The Long Term School Facility Planning Committee is devising a plan for what the district will look like 20 years from now. Over the next year, the committee will be studying several options, with possibilities including changing grade configurations, renovating some schools, and shuttering others. The goal of the committee is to be proactive in looking at the future needs of the community.

“We’re very excited about what the long term committee has been doing,” Heller said.

Mezzo said the plans for kindergarten through eighth grades will be more complicated than the high school renovation because the committee must look at all the existing buildings at determine what the ideal grade configuration will be in the future.

Many of the borough’s other schools face similar maintenance issues as the high school, Mezzo said.

Mezzo said parents and faculty will want adequate time to plan for any changes that would involve the relocation or redistricting of students.

When the borough tried to close Salem School in 2010 in the midst of a budget crisis, parents rebelled against the plan.

“That kind of reactive policy creates tension,” Mezzo said. “You need to learn from past decisions and I think it’s very important to make sure that there’s time for everyone to plan.”

Complying with new state mandates

“Unfunded mandates” is a curse word among school administrators and a slew of them are heading this way.

Despite the lack of funding, the borough will be ready for the new mandates, which include increased credit and course requirements for graduation and a senior project, according to Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape as far as the state mandates for graduation,” Tindall-Gibson said. “It’s not so much that we have to offer more courses but kids have to take more credits.”

Over the next few years, the school will be phasing in extra credit requirements to move from the current 22 credits to 25 credits in 2014.

The high school is already moving towards senior projects, he said.

In the future, fewer students may take study halls and seniors, who can currently leave school early for jobs, may need to take a full day of classes, Tindall-Gibson said.

Service consolidation

With the costs of education rising faster than taxpayer incomes, the school board will once again face challenges as it tries to improve the quality of education without impacting taxpayer wallets.

“We’re working very hard as a board to keep our expenses at a minimum and spend the taxpayers’ money very frugally and very wisely,” Heller said.

The Board of Education is looking to save money by working with the borough to combine common services.

“We’re going to look very hard and very seriously to see what we can do to save on operating expenses in the new year,” Heller said.

Some areas where the school and municipality are looking to work together include the business office, human resources, and information technology. Borough controller Wayne McAllister has signed on to one more year doubling as the school board’s business manager, and the school board recently voted to use the same legal council as the borough for labor issues.

Mezzo agreed that the municipal government and school board should work together on common areas.

“Ultimately while we have different needs, we’re the same community,” Mezzo said.

He said the Board of Education, of which he is a member, has the good of the whole town in mind.

“I think they see our challenges as common challenges and that we’re all one borough that wants the same thing for our kids, for our educators, and for our taxpayers,” Mezzo said.

Education foundation to award grants

The newly-established Naugatuck Education Foundation will be awarding its first grants this spring. The nonprofit foundation is raising money for $500 grants to go to three teachers to fund smaller projects this school year.

The foundation was recently granted its 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status, according to Joan Doback, chair of the board of directors.

She said the foundation’s first fundraiser was a success and the board is planning more in the coming year. She said teachers will be able to fill out an application for a grant on the foundation’s website soon.

Labor negotiations

The school board is currently negotiating a new contract with the union for non-certified school staff. Heller said he hoped to agree on a contract that benefits both employees and the Board of Education. Heller said he didn’t know when that contract would be ready for approval, though he hopes it will be finished sooner rather than later.

“Things have not been progressing very quickly,” Heller said.

The board recently approved a new contract with the teacher’s union, which Heller hopes the Board of Mayor and Burgesses will approve in the new year. The new contract would save the district money on health care while giving teacher’s slight raises each year.

High-tech schools

As Kaestle Boos Associates works on designing the renovated high school over the next 10 months, they will be considering how to best integrate 21st century technology into the building.

Tindall-Gibson said it’s tricky to look 10 years down the road and figure out what the school should do now to prepare for the technology of the future. New devices typically last only 14 months, he said.

Tindall-Gibson recently met with representatives from Apple to get a better picture of the educational technology available, and where it’s going, he said.

“Text book publishers are scrambling right now to move text book content into digital format. It seems like textbooks are going to become a thing of the past,” Tindall-Gibson said.

He said a lot of school districts are looking at buying iPads for all their students.

As publishers move their content into digital format, textbooks will become increasingly expensive, Tindall-Gibson said.

Plus, digital books have extra features and more interactive content.

“You’re not just buying the context but your getting a rich set of tools that goes with it,” Tindall-Gibson said.