Taxpayers, students decry school closure

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[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/BOE-package-040810.mp3″ text=”‘Save Salem School!'”]

NAUGATUCK — Borough taxpayers and their children turned out in force at the Board of Education’s regular meeting last Thursday to voice their objections to a plan to close Salem School.

Dozens of elementary-age students stood outside, holding handmade protest signs aloft and chanting, “Save Salem School!”

This uncommon sight, however, was merely a precursor to the pillorying that the board faced inside during public comment. More than 100 people packed into the Western School gymnasium, where some offered their own fiscal remedies, others complained they had felt voiceless throughout the process, and one borough lawyer announced he’d filed a formal petition with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, imploring him to investigate the Salem School closure.

“The Attorney General’s office, at Connecticut General Statutes 3-125, is charged with protecting the public interest in charitable trusts, such as Salem School,” said Andrew J. Morrissey during public comment. “Through my own legal research, there are arguments to be made that the closure of Salem School and a non-use of that building may be violative of the trust, and may be blocked.”

Morrissey emphasized he in no way spoke for Blumenthal but urged the board to reconsider its March 30 vote to shutter Salem and promised to do “everything in [his] power” to prevent the school from closing.

Resident Paul Rotatori proposed his own plan to bridge the budget gap without closing a school, which he called “Three Wishes to Save Two Million.” First of all, he said, the board should offer a cash bonus to employees who participate their spouses’ insurance plans.

“Offer them two to four thousand dollars to get them off the [school board] policy,” he said. “If that option is available, we’re looking at saving between six and 10 thousand per teacher.” Even if only 50 people took the incentive, the board could save as much as a half million dollars, he estimated.

Rotatori also suggested the board “restructure the entire guidance, social and psychological departments,” because according to his research, Naugatuck spends 30 percent more in those departments than do many Connecticut towns. A 30 percent reduction there, he said, could save about $800,000.

He also asked the board to seek three to five additional furlough days from its staff. Between all three of his “wishes,” Rotatori said, “there’s two million dollars of very realistic money.” The board did not discuss these options at the meeting.

Regardless of whether savings might be realized through alternative measures such as those Rotatori put forward, the board has already voted to close Salem. But many parents and taxpayers complained they felt their concerns were not heeded.

“For the past five months, we as a community—whether it’s parents, taxpayers, citizens, teachers, students—we have been coming to meetings, we have been trying to communicate with you how we feel about our children’s education,” said Anne Ciacciarella, chair of the newly formed Citizen’s Audit Committee, which aims to police the school board’s spending and budget. “The closure and reconfiguration we feel we’ve had no input on. We’ve come to these meetings; we’ve talked. Have you listened to us?” Indeed, the board voted on Salem’s closure at a special meeting which had no time allotted for public comment.

“I really have to say that I feel like everything’s been pushed down our throats, and we’re the ones who are paying for it,” said Glenn Connan, another member of the citizen’s group. “So being that we’re the ones that write the [municipal tax] checks every July and January, I think we’ve got to have some input. And I really hope you’re going to give it to us.”

Connan called for the board to consider combining some departments with the town to cut costs.

“Do we really need two HR [human resources] departments? Do we really need two payrolls? Do we really need two business offices? I think it’s time for us to start looking at new ways of doing business.”

Cindy Brodeur, another resident, said she didn’t see the logic behind the board’s decision to close a school, since JCJ Architecture, the firm which the board paid $36,000 to perform a facilities utilization study, did not recommend a closure.

“I’m here tonight puzzled, absolutely puzzled,” she said. “I have spent a lot of time attending board meetings, attending JCJ community meetings, attending workshop meetings. And of all the information that I’ve heard, it’s different than what I think you’re hearing. … In fact, they called [Salem] an asset.”

She, like many others, complained of recent reports that the borough might try to use the building as office space once it gains control of it.

“Whether I pay my taxes and it goes to the Board of Ed. or it goes to the town, I would rather see my taxes spent on my children than on more government offices,” Brodeur said.

One resident implored Mayor Bob Mezzo to abstain from votes regarding the Salem School and said his votes on both the borough board and education board amounted to a conflict of interest when it comes to Salem School.

Mezzo said there was no conflict of interest since he had no “financial stake” in any outcome of those votes. He tried to dispel what appears to be a commonly-held belief: that the borough wants Salem School, and wants it badly.

“There’s no overwhelming desire to close Salem and turn it into office space because the cost to do that is enormous,” he said, “if you’re talking complete building compliance, complete fire safety, complete ADA compliance and so forth.”

He further asked attendees to keep the big picture in mind.

“The other options, which really, what I see is: Close somebody else’s school, or raise my taxes—and I’m not really hearing those arguments—and at that point in time you have to make a decision,” he said. “They’re not easy choices. No one wants to close a building like Salem. It’s a beautiful building. In a perfect world, we’d have small neighborhood schools, and we’d have money to renovate them. … It’s just not a perfect world.”

Morrissey, the attorney, asked the board to keep an even bigger picture in mind and recognize that its financial fortunes could be on the upswing.

“There are times of ebb and flow. The pendulum swings. Economies change. Things get better,” he said. “Yes, we’re at a low point now, but I have nothing but optimism. We’re going up. Things are improving. People, at least now, want to come to Naugatuck. Let’s keep it that way rather than a place that people are saving their pennies to try to move out of. And neighborhood schools are one of the attractions to a nice, all-American small town like Naugatuck.”

Some were just concerned that a building with significant historical value would be repurposed.

Julie Branco Sampaio, who is organizing a formal petition against the closure, called the decision a “travesty.” Ciacciarella warned that the board would go down in history as the one that closed Salem.

“That school has been here over 100 years,” she said. “It has seen the turn of two centuries. It has seen the war, it has seen the [Great] Depression, it has seen the flood; it has seen a lifetime of history. The past 100 years, it has stood for something; the next 100 years it will, too. The decision you made is your legacy. … People will remember you as Board of Education members, each single one of you, your family name, you as the mayor, they will remember your legacy to our community was to close one of our treasures.”

After absorbing such pointed criticism for the better part of an hour, the embattled board carried out its usual procedural business. Notably, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson announced that an additional $339,000 had been cut from the budget, this time in the form of cost avoidance on the self-funded insurance policy, which was realized through position reductions. The new savings brings the likely 2010-2011 budget deficit to $1.3 million, assuming a zero-percent increase from the borough.