Borough couple petitioning to save Central Avenue

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Donna Cariello and her husband Charles Amrich are collecting signatures on a petition to keep Central Avenue Elementary School in Naugatuck opened after the Board of Education voted to close it. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Public outcry over the proposed closure of Central Avenue Elementary School seemed to end a month ago when the Board of Education voted to reassign the students there, but for Donna Cariello and her husband Charles Amrich, the fight is far from over.

The couple is circulating petitions to keep the school as a kindergarten through fourth grade elementary school next year, instead of turning it into a preschool as the school board intends. As of last week, about 300 people from all over the borough have signed the petitions.

“We want to get the mayor’s attention, and the board’s attention, that they’re doing the wrong thing,” Amrich said.

Cariello and Amrich live on Forest Street with their 9-year-old granddaughter, Kaylee Kiernan, who would have gone into the fourth grade next year at Central Avenue. Days after the school board voted to relocate Kaylee and her schoolmates as a cost-saving measure, the couple drew up a petition and made copies available at community hangouts including Cindy’s Grocers, Nelson’s Pharmacy, A-1 Pizza and Family Market. They plan to submit the signatures within three weeks to Mayor Robert Mezzo and the school board.

Mezzo said he would respectfully accept the petition, but it holds no weight under the borough’s charter. Unlike petitions against the adopted budget, these will not force a referendum on the issue.

“There’s nothing that’s legally required to be done,” Mezzo said. “This decision was already voted on.”

Parents of Central Avenue students were notified recently which schools their children will attend next year. Students will be split among four other elementary schools, with more than half attending Maple Hill Elementary School. The Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses adopted a budget last Thursday that incorporated the $1.2 million savings from closing Prospect Street Preschool and redistributing Central Avenue students.

School board Chair David Heller said it is unlikely that Central Avenue will remain open.

“At this point the school is closing,” Heller said. “The budget has been passed by the town and the budget was based on the closing of Central Avenue.”

He explained that the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance asked the Board of Education to present a budget under 4.5 percent. It was able to present a budget of 3.5 percent, but ultimately, the Board of Education didn’t receive even that.

“They cut us down to under 2 percent. I don’t possibly see how we could reverse the closing,” Heller said.

The school board two years ago voted to close Salem Elementary School to save money, then voted again to keep it open after a petition drive collected more than 1,000 signatures. The second vote, however, took place in late April, before the budget was adopted.

Cariello and Amrich said the board should look again at closing Salem, an older school that is not handicapped-accessible and does not have a gymnasium. They said parents and community members were not given adequate opportunity to voice their concerns about closing Central Avenue.

Heller said there is always a public comment section at the board’s meetings and the board always wants to hear from parents who are concerned about their children’s education. The board would welcome any comment on what was happening with the schools.

At the first meeting held for Central Avenue parents, district administrators only answered some pre-submitted questions. A hearing on the school closures was later held at City Hill Middle School, but parents were not notified enough in advance of that meeting, Cariello said. Central Avenue is located in a low-income neighborhood where many families do not have cars and could not drive to the middle school, she said.

“If you truly believe that something is right, then you stand up and you fight for it, and that’s what I’m doing,” Cariello said.

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.