Historic school will close its doors

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[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/BOE-package-040110.mp3″ text=”Salem School to shutter”]

NAUGATUCK — The Board of Education voted, 5-3, Tuesday night to take Salem Elementary School offline and turn the building over to the borough, a move it hopes will save about $424,000.

That figure takes into account a $108,000 increase in busing costs related to shifting Salem students to Central Avenue, Prospect Street and Western schools, as well as the impact of COBRA and unemployment benefits.

Though board members said it was not an easy decision, their vote reflected the rationale which informed the decision: that it’s better to close a school and shuffle students among facilities than to lay off more staff than is absolutely necessary.

Board member Dave Heller said he’d spoken with teachers and administrators and gathered a general consensus that the school buildings themselves are not as important as the people who work in them.

The Naugatuck Board of Education decided it was better close historic Salem School than to lay off additional teachers.
The Naugatuck Board of Education decided it was better close historic Salem School than to lay off additional teachers.

“The feedback that I’ve been hearing, 100 percent of the feedback, is that if we can save two teaching jobs by closing a school, then we need to do that,” he said. “We’re hearing we’re going to be short money … some of us are saying that a school closing is not an option, or not something that we should do. I disagree 110 percent. … The only other way to save money is by cutting our staff.”

But the board also unanimously approved a proposal to combine the two middle schools into one at City Hill, where the meeting was held, and to move Hop Brook School to what is now Hillside Middle School, shift Prospect Street School to Hop Brook, and turn Prospect Street into an early childhood center. That plan comes at a cost of 52 teaching positions, which include 29 retirees, 17 reductions, 4 non-replacements, a resignation, a leave of absence and 4.5 non-certified positions.

The plan to consolidate the middle schools and shift elementary students is projected to save a little more than $1 million, bringing the total estimated savings of the two plans to approximately $1.44 million.

That figure, when combined with about $850,000 the board hopes to save by switching its health insurance benefits manager, from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield to Cigna, lops the projected deficit down to about $1.7 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson, far right, said further staff cuts would have an impact on the educational program across the school system. Officials acknowledged that to shore up the remaining $1.7 million budget deficit, assuming a zero-percent budget increase from the borough, dozens more staff cuts may prove inevitable.
Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson, far right, said further staff cuts would have an impact on the educational program across the school system. Officials acknowledged that to shore up the remaining $1.7 million budget deficit, assuming a zero-percent budget increase from the borough, dozens more staff cuts may prove inevitable.

Superintendant of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson presented the board with a layoff scenario, on which the board took no action, that could make up about $1.2 million. The proposal, which Tindall-Gibson and Director of Instruction Brigitte Crispino said they did not recommend, calls for cutting 22.5 positions—including nine reading consultants, three business teachers, two instrumental music teachers and two world language teachers.

The warning sparked a discussion about whether the board will seek a budget increase from the borough, which has requested a zero-percent increase this year from all departments.

“I’m hearing loud and clear, and I’m not sure why everyone isn’t hearing the same message, but there’s no money coming from the town,” Heller said. “The teachers and our non-certified staff are not willing to give us concessions. They’re not willing to do more than they did this past year to get us through our current budget. We need to come up with the zero [increase] funding proposal … the reality is going to be horribly brutal.”

Tindall-Gibson and Crispino said further staff reductions—which may be the last possible way to save money—would be detrimental to the educational program throughout the school system.

“[Those layoffs] would absolutely devastate this district in terms of providing programming for students at the intermediate, middle school and throughout the district,” Crispino said. “Eliminating these positions would ruin the support that our children have on a daily basis in their classrooms. It would ruin the support that teachers need to effectively provide programs that reach every single student through differentiated instruction … You would, in effect, be pulling the rug out from under every person employed in this district and every student.”

Tindall-Gibson provided the board with a document comparing the budget increases being awarded to school districts throughout the state. Fourteen of the schools listed apparently are getting a budget decrease; 30, including Naugatuck, are looking at no change from 2009-2010; the rest are likely to get at least a modest increase. The average increase, according to the document, is about 1 percent in Connecticut.

“The board has to honor its contractual obligations. It simply has to,” Tindall-Gibson said. “There’s no easy solution to what is the worst financial downturn that we have seen in our lifetimes. The board’s responsibility is to recommend a reasonable educational program and then work with the town to resolve whatever has to be resolved.”

Mayor Bob Mezzo, who is in a unique position to mediate a budget dispute, as a member of both the education board and borough board, said the school board should explain the impact of a zero-percent increase before going to the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance.

“What we want to avoid is going to the joint boards and saying, ‘This is the best we can do,’ and the joint boards turning around and saying ‘We said flat. Here’s flat; deal with it,’ and then we’re back at this anyway. I think before we get to that process, we need to explain what that zero means … and this is a good start,” he said in response to Crispino’s and Tindall-Gibson’s explanation.

Borough controller and acting BOE business manager Wayne McAllister said the education board needs to be ready for a zero-percent increase, regardless of what the joint boards ultimately accept.

“I think you should be prepared to implement a zero prior to July 1, just to be on the conservative side,” he said. “Be prepared, have some contingencies in place; if the board chooses not to present a zero to the joint boards, be prepared shortly thereafter to put something in place that would represent a zero.”

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