The views stated here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the staff of this newspaper.
(Jan. 21, 2019) — Perhaps you have seen the signs, heard the voices, or read the meeting minutes opposing the Board of Education’s decision to close HES and restructure our school system. The reason for this opposition is multi-faceted.
There are several parts to this puzzle. One is the fiscal disaster at the State level which we have very little control over. There is little that can even be predicted since we just elected a new Governor and leadership. It is a fact that we will be forced to react to whatever comes from Hartford. There are also several initiatives happening in our town, all on different timelines and agendas, but all interconnected. This is where we have some control. These initiatives are well intended, but unintentionally out of synch. The HES issue is at the forefront because it was voted to close by the BOE at the end of the 2018/19 school year. Consequently, because of its timeline, it has been thrust to the center of the puzzle.
Currently, in addition to HES, there is work being done to decide the future of the D and H Scovil property, install sewers in Higganum Center, develop the Rossi property, and find a use for the Higganum Cove. There is land for sale immediately south of the center across from the reservoir as well as a large parcel on Rt 81 in the vicinity of Haddam Ambulance Assoc. We recently lost Citizens Bank and the future of that building is unknown. All of these initiatives will shape the look and feel of Higganum Center for the rest of the lives of us making these decisions while leaving a lasting footprint for generations to come.
First, since HES and its property lie adjacent to the Rossi property and across the green from the D and H Scovil property, whatever happens with it has the high potential to steer Higganum Center’s transition and development. I think we can all agree that a school in the center of town will create a certain feel or vibe and attract development in line with that concept. If HES is sold and becomes some commercial entity, it will change and drive development in a new direction. That will change activity patterns for our local businesses. It could be better, or worse. No one knows, because no official economic impact study has been done to even try to ascertain this impact. The “Friends of HES” group is working on such a study now, but they need more time to complete that work. Haddam’s current Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), adopted by town leadership, does reference HES as an asset of our town. At the 1/8 BOE meeting the owner of The Country Market stated that he sees HES as a vital engine of traffic through his store. He also stated concern that closure of HES will have a detrimental impact to his business, and is unsure that the store could survive. Other business owners have raised similar concerns.
Second, the installation of sewers will affect the viability of businesses in town. According to Lizz Milardo, that initiative is on roughly a two year timeline from now. The growth potential for businesses will be higher with them installed. There has been a proposal to put housing into the Rossi Property. However, without a sewer system, it cannot be built big enough to be economically viable. The HES property will have similar constraints. It follows, then, that sewers will likely make the HES property more valuable. How much more? No one knows since no recent appraisal has been done to determine that worth. The only data we have is what is stated in the town field card. With this idea in mind, it also makes it impossible to determine if a submitted proposal is fairly valued.
Third, the BOE is using enrollment estimates to validate their plan out to the 10 year mark. As stated in the November 17 Op Ed “A Permanent Solution for a Temporary Problem”, the BOE never commissioned an official demographics agency to compile a report for this decision. They used State data, in house projections, and a Wesleyan Statistics Class project as sources. Professional Demographer Ken Gronbach, a town resident, has stated discrepancies in this data. From his perspective, enrollment will turn around sooner than 10 years, and, when it does, the school population will likely exceed any we have ever planned for in the past. However, based on their data, the BOE is estimating a roughly 1 million dollar annual savings from this restructuring of our school system. From the outset at the first informational meeting the BOE has stated that this savings will be re-allocated in the budget and not show as any decrease to their budget. It will only show as a flat or smaller increase. If, in concept, it was put aside and saved for the full duration of their plan, there would be a 10 million dollar pot to use when our population grows again and we need additional school space. Would that money be enough to pay for that space? No one knows since there hasn’t been any estimate done to determine the cost of an addition to BES (the stated likely solution), or any other option that might be available once HES is gone. As a point of comparison, Clinton just completed a new High School for the price of 64 million dollars. After State grants and proceeds of the sale of the old school, they are left with a 42.8 million dollar bond. (For more information, see this New Haven Register article) Shouldn’t we at least put forth some effort to ensure this restructuring isn’t going to cost us more in the future?
Fourth, the plan, as it stands now, is for the 2019/20 school year to open with K-3 students from Haddam all attending BES. All Killingworth K-3 attending KES. All district 4-5 grades attending an intermediate school, operating on an elementary time schedule, but located in the HK Middle School in Killingworth where the 6-8 graders will continue operating on the current time schedule. Grade 5 will be sharing space with grade 6 in the upstairs “wing” (formerly known as a pod). Grades 9-12 will be unchanged at HKHS. To facilitate this idea, the BOE has changed the description of HKMS from a 4 “pod” building to a 4 “wing” 8 “pod” building. This is different from how this building has been described since its inception when it was sold as a 4 grade level building with each grade segregated in its own space, then called a “pod”. Many of the logistics of the restructuring are currently in development by the RSD 17 administration. There has not been any guarantee that these will be fully complete before either the reading (scheduled for 2/6/19), or acceptance of a proposal for HES. Because of that, we could go beyond a point of no return if HES gets sold and logistics clash
Fifth, the BOE has carefully stated that the standards for determining class size will not change from those in use for the last 10 years. Our current class sizes are, in many cases, less than the standard, and therefore afford some greater opportunity for more personalized instruction for our children. The restructuring will increase the number of kids in a classroom over current levels, but not exceed historical averages when we had higher enrollment. Right now, the BOE has the space to do this, but the loss of HES will limit their ability to react to changes in population to control class size. Some of the space that will remain is composed of portable classrooms (3) at BES, and some could be available at the original Middle School on the HKHS campus. The cost required to maintain and use those portable rooms (they are going to be on a different maintenance schedule than the core of BES), or renovate the old HKMS if needed to make it usable again is unknown.
So, what to make of all this? The dysfunction in Hartford will likely lead to higher taxes that we cannot control. That’s a much larger problem. That increase could easily eclipse anything the BOE does with HES. The BOE stated 1 million dollar savings amounts to a 2% savings on a 42 million dollar school budget. That savings gets split with Killingworth at roughly a 60/40 share, so Haddam would see roughly a $600,000 smaller increase to our total town tax bill. If that money were to make it to the pocket of an individual resident, it would amount to roughly $200 annually, depending on your assessment. Again, the BOE has stated that this money will be re-allocated in the budget so it will come through as less of an increase, not a reduction in the budget. For that unrealized savings, we will be left with an unknown path for Higganum Center, an inability to assess the value of any HES sale, and yet unknown logistics for our schools. The last two of these will impact not only Haddam, but Killingworth as well. All of these unknowns can be answered with some time and diligence. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and future generations to take that time to fully vet this decision and not grab at a short sighted solution that will have lasting impact? Shouldn’t the BOE stop this process, confer with town leaders and committees, and only continue if all the information still points in this direction? That is the crossroad we are presented with and what we do have control over. The group “Friends of HES” is asking, at a minimum, that the BOE delay this decision 1 year to answer all these questions. The cost of that delay won’t even show up in a tax bill. If you would like to be involved, please attend upcoming BOE meetings (schedule), town meetings (schedule), send an email to your elected leaders (Town Office directory) / (Board of Ed members), or visit the “Save HES” FB page or SaveHES@yahoo.com. The last links have more information and further links for support. Involvement from any side of this decision will only strengthen the validity of the outcome. Please make your voice heard before it is too late.