Op Ed: A Permanent Solution for a Temporary Problem

The views stated here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the staff of this newspaper.

A Permanent Solution For a Temporary Problem

Questioning the Restructuring Plan for Regional School District 17

November 6, 2018 marked the eighth month, to the day, since the RSD17 Board of Education voted in favor of restructuring the district at the recommendation of the Strategic Capital Planning (SCP) committee, as follows:

“To accept the Strategic Capital Planning Committee’s proposal as follows:  To create two Kindergarten through 3rd Grade Primary Schools, one to be housed at Killingworth Elementary School, the other at Burr District Elementary School; to create a 4th and 5th Grade Intermediate School to be housed at Haddam-Killingworth Middle School; to designate the Middle School as Grades 6 through 8 to be housed at Haddam-Killingworth Middle School; and to close Haddam Elementary School all of the above effective at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.”

On the evening of November 6th, I found myself at a Board of Education meeting, surrounded by a host of diverse townspeople with a message.  After several months of reviewing, analyzing and attempting to vet the information that the SCP committee utilized to arrive at their decision, it has become clear that their data set is incomplete, at best, and their examination did not take all factors into account.

At first glance, the impetus for restructuring seems simple.  Our town is not as robust as it once was.  We hear it all of the time – enrollments are down state wide and state funding has been slashed.  We already pay a significant amount in taxes to support our schools, so how are our town leaders to make up the difference in dollars?  Less children, less money – why not cut costs to maintain our financial viability and educational reputation of excellence?  It may follow that offloading a property and a building, along with some staff positions, would be the way to go in this pickle, but further research into the matter has shown that proper data has not been collected to support this determination.

This is a very complex, systemic puzzle.  Let me explain.

EDUCATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

Closing a school – any school – requires a glut of planning under the education umbrella.  There’s the reprogramming, retrofitting and renovating of the remaining buildings to accommodate the additional students and staff.  Tough decisions must be made regarding which personnel stays and which will be let go.  How will we manage class sizes that will inevitably grow in an increasingly demanding teaching environment?  The detail of fitting out each classroom in remaining schools requires significant time and study.

With this plan (specific to our district), leaders will also be required to modify and rewrite curricula to welcome a different grade structure.  The HKMS campus must be updated to include play grounds suitable for the user groups.  Burr building and grounds will also need to undergo upgrading and modification.  Because our district covers such a large geographical expanse, scheduling of the school day, remapping of transportation routes and times, adjusting clubs and late busses and addressing sports opportunities must also be resolved.  There are so many elements to consider, even looking strictly through the lens of education.  Do our educational leaders really think they will have resolved all of these issues and be ready to open for business in the fall of 2019?

ENROLLMENT ANALYSIS

Enrollment prediction is not as simple as it sounds.  Populations ebb and flow and can be difficult to understand without expert interpretation from a demographer.  While it is clear at this juncture that the state population will remain at a shortfall in the near term, it has been suggested by demographer Ken Gronbach that in the near future the population of youth in our towns will rise again.  “Haddam student enrollment began to decline about 10-12 years ago because of the diminutive number of Generation X parents.  Haddam now has a healthy crop of Millennials getting married, so we can look for more kids overall in 5-8 years.”  UCONN’s study entitled Connecticut’s Towns Experiencing a Demographic Shift from 2015-2040, Connecticut State Data Center Reports, also states that “Towns in Connecticut are projected to slowly gain population as a total, according to the 2015 to 2040 population projections for all 169 towns in the state of Connecticut” (dated August 31, 2017).

If we are to base this restructuring decision on declining enrollments, we had better be certain that we are as accurate as possible about our projections.  The SCP named the following as their resources:

  • A student project entitled, Predicting Future Enrollment in the Haddam-Killingworth School District, performed by three Wesleyan students in an Advanced Statistics class
  • Internal projections which the BOE derived themselves, based on birth rates and historical data, as well as state data from UCONN, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the state Department of Education.

The project completed by the three undergraduate students is neither peer reviewed nor published research and thus holds no weight in the equation.  The regional data mentioned by the Board may illuminate state and regional trends, but offers nothing specific to our town.  Further, we have not seen any of this regional and state-wide data, so there is no clarity on the parameters of the estimates or how far reaching they claim to be.  Finally, internal projections prepared by a committee on a Board of Education are not, in most people’s eyes, sufficient for forecasting the future of our district.

A qualified study should be performed.  Unfortunately, the committee “felt that it would not be a sensible investment to pay The New England School Development Council (NESDEC), [a reputable and qualified resource], to complete an analysis.”

You may have heard that large companies, such as Verizon and Pratt and Whitney, are adding jobs to their forces in great numbers.  Could an influx of Pratt employees spur an enrollment increase in our near future?  How about the families that have moved to town in recent years?  Their preschool-aged children have not been included in any estimates or projections that the committee consulted.  What is the margin of error in the numbers that the SCP has compiled and by what means have they tested their suppositions if they don’t want to pay a professional to do a qualified study?  We don’t know.  With the incomplete information provided, maybe now is not the right time to close a school.

CUTTING COSTS – WHAT ARE WE SAVING?

The BOE’s website states, “While there will be costs associated with moving schools, maintain an empty building and minimal costs associated with implementing a new program (mostly one time for transition, orientation, etc.), our current estimate is $1,000,000 in annually reduced operating expenses.”  I’d love to believe that by closing any school, District 17 will achieve the savings that they’ve estimated, but unfortunately this outcome is unlikely.  Indeed, the costs for restructuring have not even been tallied.  It was noted that at least some anticipated expenses will be paid for by the capital account, but any line items specific to restructuring have not been defined in any cohesive or complete manner for examination.  Along with the BOE’s intention for savings, the statement referenced above and posted on the district website, carries this disclaimer, “However, this is an estimate at this time and more will be known once we begin to plan implementation at a more granular level.”  In any case, not a penny of that “savings” is going into our pockets in the form of tax relief of any kind, so this may not be the kind of financial break that we were hoping for.

Even if the district manages to save some money this year by doing as little as possible in the way of construction/renovation/allocation to accommodate the restructuring project, what is that amount and is it worth it?  What value do we place on maintaining a vibrant, historical, key elementary school building in our village center?  What effect will a shuttered, empty, dilapidated structure have on our town, our property values, our businesses?  We will still be expected to vote in school budgets; however, should this plan proceed, Haddamites will be paying more than ever – both in direct costs as well as the reverberating economic strain to our town center.  And what happens in a few years when we find ourselves seeking seats for the unanticipated influx of students?  Soon enough we will be asked to pay for additions and improvements to the Burr campus to accommodate this current plan.

EFFECT ON HIGGANUM & HADDAM

Since the school selected for closure is located in the center of Higganum Village, it is prudent to consider this matter specifically from a town planning perspective.  How does closing a school affect the town that it is housed in?  The research is copious.  I’d urge you to spend five minutes and Google it.  Look up ‘Smart Growth’ or ‘Live, Work, Play (Eat, Shop) Community’.  Please take a look at the following, all available as pdf’s online:

  • Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School, 2002 Edition National Trust for Historic Preservation in cooperation with National Center for Preservation Technology and Training of the National Parks Service, International City/County Management Association, Smart Growth Network of US Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Helping Johnny Walk to School – Policy Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Community-Centered Schools Renee Kuhlman, Director of Special Projects Center for State and Local Policy.
  • K-12 Regionalization in Connecticut: Pros, Cons and Surprises  2018  Orlando J. Rodriguez of Rodriguez Data Solutions, LLC in partnership with the Harford Foundation for Public Giving.

It is well-documented that small schools, especially at the elementary level, correlate with educational achievement. Further, a school within a community like Higganum Village is an asset not only to the students who attend that school or the teachers and staff that do their magic there, but also for the community at large.  HES is an integral player our town center – visible from the main thoroughfare, adjacent to the town green, within walking distance to residences/shops/restaurants, and including a piece of undeveloped land for trails and recreation.

This fortunate location also influences the economic health of our current businesses.  HES employs many people who live close-by, and still more who live out of town.  Many students are transported to and from school by a guardian.  All of these people come to town on their HES business, but may stick around for a cup of coffee or a meal.  They take advantage of our markets, gas stations and package stores.  They utilize the local pharmacy, pop in at the gym, or stop for a haircut.  We even have a physical therapy office, a hardware store and many other specialty services for these visitors.

“So what?” you ask. “People will still frequent these businesses even if HES closes.”  Sure, some will.  However, many will not be travelling through to the town center any longer, and will access other options along their daily routes.  That change in circulation pattern will show an immediate dip in revenue for our business owners.  The real concern, though, is the effect that that a large, vacated school building will have on our town, as a whole.

A school is an anchor for vitality in a community.  It’s a constant reminder of our future, and for some who grew up in this town, a historical link to our past.  It provides a central location for extracurricular activities, resources that the town can utilize, adjacencies to key community spaces, and easy access to emergency services.

When a buyer is interested in a property, one of the major research points before purchase is usually the school(s) that children would attend.  The website schooldigger.com is a common resource referred to by realtors to help potential buyers vet the local schools.  On the site, HES ranks 57th of 532 schools in Connecticut, while Burr ranks 92nd, and KES ranks 98th.  As our home values are closely linked to the strength of our schools, it is likely that this closing may negatively affect this key life investment.

Why would we choose to shutter this school with such strong roots in the center of Higganum Village?  The references made in the decision by the SCP were that it was older building, it has subpar car and bus line circulation, it is a less buildable property, and offers a lesser playground.  As a landscape architect that has had the pleasure of working with many private and public campuses in the state of Connecticut, I’d proffer that the HES property is far from inferior.  In my opinion (one which many towns-folk seem share), it is a gem!  The property includes a building that was built in 1948 with additions made in 1958, 1962 and 1989.  It boasts a desirable location.  Parking is well-sited on the perimeter of the campus, with abutting but separate playgrounds.  Just beyond the HES edifice is a 154 acre haven of hiking trails that offer respite or exercise for members of the community (furry friends too!) while providing the ultimate outdoor classroom for the school itself.

One point that is being discussed is the concept that perhaps closing HES will make way for a better use of that property.  Residential pursuits seem like a good idea and a common suggestion.  While I would applaud the idea of some more diverse residential options in this town, I’d also like to point out that there is ample property available right now for such construction.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a mixed-use development in town while retaining the school where our children will send their children and grandparents can easily visit?  We have an opportunity to align the generations in a sustainable and healthy way if we plan this properly.

In conclusion, I urge you to consider this matter more broadly as a pivotal point in the history of our district and Higganum Village.  At the same time, I ask that you focus in – on asking questions about – the details of this plan.  The Board did not have many answers when they rolled this plan out to our communities last February, but if they plan to implement these changes in less than a year – Fall of 2019 – it is urgent that they generate and share some very specific answers now and moving forward.

Many people feel this restructuring is a “done deal.”  Many feel they don’t have a say in the matter.  I’d like to remind you that you elected this Board of Education, and they are working tirelessly in service of this community, of which they are a part.  We also have a Board of Selectmen, a Planning and Zoning Board, and an Economic Development Committee to voice concerns with, all of whom would welcome the opportunity to work in concert with the BOE on this matter.  It is our job to inform the members of these Boards of our opinions, our desires, our areas of expertise and the ways in which we can support them in their work.  I believe everyone is doing their best and I commend the board for all their hard work thus far.  I also believe further research is needed before such a critical decision can be reached.  We must have confidence in the resolution, as it affects the very essence of our town and the future of our school district.

Katie Packtor

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3 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more, very well written. I feel that this decision needs far more research to support as the correct decision. The long term negative impact to both our district and our town center are a big risk if this is not properly researched from a town planning and economic perspective, rather than only an educational perspective (which is also debatable).

  2. Expertly written, passionate and informative! I only hope the BOE members will actually take the time to read and ponder the well-articulated points.

  3. Very well written. Closing HES might not only be expensive in the long run (if we need to build a new school as the town grows) but it seems all the business owners in Higganum are worried that it will have a real and materials impact on their fortunes. Further impoverishing Higganum’s retail base will hurt the town’s and BOE’s ability to raise taxes to fund education!

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