NAUGATUCK — The turnout didn’t indicate it, but a public forum about the borough’s use of its 11 public school buildings, held Thursday night at Hop Brook Intermediate School, may have been just as important to solving the Board of Education’s budget problems as was Monday’s highly-crowded, highly-publicized meeting.
About 20 parents attended the forum—roughly 90 percent fewer than filled the City Hill Middle School auditorium three days earlier—and absent were the television vans that have become almost as ubiquitous at Naugatuck’s educational edifices as school buses.
But the feedback generated by this, the last of three facilities-usage sessions, will help Hartford-based firm JCJ Architecture recommend ways in which the board can best—and most cost-efficiently—use its schools over the next 10 years. And one possibility is closing one of the borough’s 11 school buildings to save money.
“I think it’s gotta be a serious consideration, unfortunately,” said Rocky Vitale, the lone Board of Education member present Thursday night.
On its surface, a closure seems impractical, since some schools, most notably Prospect Street School, are currently overcrowded. But JCJ, which will deliver a facilities-usage report to the board at the end of the month, is examining whether other buildings have excess space. The question, it seems, is, is there enough net space across the district to operate only 10 buildings?
“That’s what we want to find out,” Vitale said.
The answer, however, won’t be a simple yes or no, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson, who also attended Thursday’s forum.
“If you have excess space at the high school, what do you do with it?” he asked, hinting that the district might be reluctant to move lower grades to NHS. “If you close Hillside [Middle School] what does Salem [School] do for [physical education]? That’s where they go for gym.”
At present, there is no estimate of how much money the school system could save by closing a building. A phone message left at JCJ’s Hartford office inquiring about the study was not returned immediately Friday.
The Board of Education is in the midst of trying to reconcile a more-than-$2 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and could face an even bigger deficit in 2010-11, when its contractual obligations increase.
The score of parents at Hop Brook Thursday rotated around six stations, each of which featured a large piece of poster board with a question. Topics included school buildings’ physical conditions, locations, facilities (libraries, classrooms, playgrounds and the like), technological capacities and class sizes. Parents jotted thoughts on sticky notes and also discussed the subjects as a group.
“It’s important to me to maintain class sizes—keep them low,” said Kris Generali, a former teacher. “I have a son in second grade, and I think he had 12 students in his kindergarten class. Now my daughter is in kindergarten, and she has 22.”
Barrett Felker, a borough newcomer, expressed some frustration about schools’ surroundings.
“We just moved in, in January of last year, and we live a quarter mile from Maple Hill [School],” he said. “But there’s no sidewalk, so we can’t walk to school.”
The most common complaint, however, was that students must transition between schools too frequently. Right now, Naugatuck has six K-4 schools, two 5-6 schools, two 7-8 schools and one high school. The consensus was that students should stay in one school for at least three years. The most popular suggestion was to divide schools into grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
Vitale said he would like to hear additional public input when JCJ’s study is complete. Earlier this week, he posted a message on the Facebook page of Our Kids Come First, a group of parents, students, teachers and others who are tracking closely the board’s budget management, asking if it might be interested in selecting representatives to help examine the report.
He added that he will push for the study to be posted online for public viewing.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.