Letter to the Editor: The Closure of HES; Why Killingworth Residents Should Care

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

(Jan. 30, 2019) — Perhaps you have seen “Save HES” signs popping up around Haddam.  More and more townspeople are becoming concerned about the closure of the school and the impacts it will have on education in Regional School District 17, as well as property values throughout the district.

The signs are being posted by concerned members of the community, and were put forth by a group called “Friends of HES.”  The group is composed of business owners, parents, architects and planners, real estate developers, educational professionals, and many other concerned taxpayers.  This group has repeatedly asked the Board of Education for more specific information pertaining to the closure of HES.  So far, none of that information has been made available and virtually no questions have been adequately answered as the BoE keeps referring back to old documentation of which the validity has been called into serious question.  In fact, the BoE’s recent response to the Haddam Board of Selectmen who have requested that they halt the closure until more reliable data can be gathered refers them back to these same old invalid sources.  The Save HES signs are not only to raise community awareness of the BoE’s actions and intentions, they are also meant to unite those of us who are concerned about this decision and remind people that if we stand together we can make a change.

The effects that the closing of HES can have on Haddam are easy to pinpoint, the negative economic impact on Higganum Center being one of the most pressing and many Haddam residents are realizing just how severe this impact could become.  The effects on Killingworth however, might be a little harder to spot at this point in time, but the research conducted by the Friends of HES indicates that Killingworth residents will also suffer from this closure.  We are a Regional School District, which means that any decisions made by the BoE will affect both Haddam and Killingworth.  Killingworth residents in fact, have many reasons to be concerned, some of which I will address in this letter.  Attending and speaking during Board of Education and Board of Selectmen meetings as well as writing letters to the BoE, the BoS, and supporting the Friends of HES are good ways that they can take action.  Many believe the school closing is a “done deal” while in fact that is not the case.  The BoE was elected to represent the residents of Haddam and Killingworth, and they can vote to wait another year before redistricting while more thorough research is completed, or even discontinue the restructuring plans all together.

Killingworth Elementary School is currently being used to house all of the elementary special education programming in our district as well as all of the pre-K programming in the district.  These programs were moved into KES by the Board of Education in preparation for restructuring, and were included as part of the plan to close HES.  This puts more pressure on staff there as well as moving that facility to near capacity, increasing the student to teacher ratio and thus watering down the experience of students in that school. 

Student to teacher ratios bring me to my next concern.  RSD 17 is currently ranked 29th of 151 school districts in Connecticut according to the real estate rating website schooldigger.com.  HES rates the highest in the district at 57th of 532 elementary schools, while Burr rates 92nd, and KES rates 98th.  So our BoE has decided to close the highest ranking school in the district, thus dragging our overall district rating down and decreasing property values throughout Killingworth and Haddam.  Student to teacher ratios directly affect the rating system that real estate websites use (which is probably one of the reasons that HES ranks highest), as well as standardized test scores which many studies have shown are directly related back to student/teacher ratios.  Residents in the RSD17 area have been paying high taxes to keep our school district funded, which in turn provides an excellent rating and increases demand for our properties when it is time to sell or make an investment, but now that student/teacher ratio is being taken away by this restructuring plan and our ratings will decrease, and our property values will decrease, because there will be less demand to move into an area with a lower rated school system.  In effect, it doesn’t matter which school they close, the burden will be on the residents of the district as a whole. 

The restructuring will also affect the new middle school which is located in Killingworth.  The middle school has been a burden on the district since even before it opened.  It was built large because at the time, the BoE had predicted a population growth in our area and wanted to be sure we had the capacity to accommodate that growth, which is all well and good, but that population growth hasn’t occurred yet, but it will.  The building was a huge cost to the district but not only did it provide an excellent new facility for our students while increasing our school ratings, it provided some relief in the area of much needed administrative offices which were placed in the old middle school.  HKMS is rated 61st of 249 Middle Schools in CT, that’s not too shabby.  The BoE however, will also be harming this rating with the restructuring plan.  HKMS might be large enough to house the students they are proposing to put there, but that doesn’t make it right.  The school was built with 4 wings or “pods”, each pod was intended to house 1 grade level of students and with this plan, they will be adding a 5th grade level to a building that was specifically built for 4, with only 4 wings.  The plan they have proposed for the circulation patterns of these students as well as the timing and scheduling that our children will be subjected to is confusing at best, and again will be a watered down educational experience at a school that will be within 40 students of capacity during the first year of the plan.  The BoE is not leaving much room for error or new students fluctuating into our district, and there are over 100 houses for sale in RSD17 as I write this.

Originally, many residents, including many members of the “Friends of HES” thought that there would be some significant tax savings associated with the restructuring of our district.  However, that is absolutely not the case.  In fact, residents will not see any savings at all in their tax bill because the BoE is planning to reallocate the savings.  Many originally assumed this savings would work out to about 20% of the school budget since the BoE would be closing 1 of 5 schools, however, it is only 2%.  A school is being closed, thus eliminating teachers and raising class sizes and decreasing property values for a 2% savings which will be reallocated within the budget to give the BoE some money to play with.

In addition to all of these concerns, the Friends of HES have conducted demographic research on our area and realized that all towns in Connecticut can expect a population boom beginning in about 7 years.  Millennials, the largest generation the world has ever seen, will begin to settle down, buy properties, and start families.  To quote professional demographer Ken Gronbach, “the closure of HES is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  In other words, we might not absolutely need the capacity that all of our schools provide at this time, but when we need it back, we will need it badly and it will be gone, and our great teachers will be gone.  One of the reasons the BoE chose to keep Burr school open is because the layout of the building and property will more easily allow for a future addition to be put onto the school.  So in 7 years, will the taxpayers of Haddam and Killingworth be asked to pay for an addition to Burr school that will cost far more money than keeping HES open in the first place would have cost?  It seems to me that is a very real possibility.  The population projections that the BoE has used to aid in their decision are from outdated and invalid sources.  The “Wesleyan Study” that was touted by the BoE when this decision was made is actually a project that was done by undergraduate students as a class assignment at Wesleyan University and is by no means acceptable as a professional source.

Every property owner in RSD17 should be very concerned about this decision.  It was poorly researched and made in a vacuum based on the opinion of a small group of BoE members that have, in essence, failed to do their due diligence thus far.  The superintendent has said in public meetings that “now is the right time”, but are we sure it is the right time?  Why does it need to be now?  He is not following up that statement with any data or facts to show this is the right time.  The BoE should put the closure off a year and have more research conducted so they can make a truly informed decision.  Killingworth and Haddam residents need to stand as one and implore the BoE to delay restructuring until such research can be completed.  The cost of delaying this process for one year is negligible, but the cost of making the wrong decision in this case is astronomical.

For more information visit:   http://www.haddam-killingworthnow.com/category/opinion/editorials/

To donate to the SAVE HES fund visit:  https://www.gofundme.com/save-hes

Joe Rizzo
Haddam, CT

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Joe, for your letter. You have accurately articulated the issues faced by BOTH towns of the school district.

  2. Finally a reply that makes sense! Residents of the District need to wake up and pay attention. Look at some of the real estate websites. My home has lost $30,000 of value in just the few months since the re-structuring was announced. The Award winning Haddam Elementary School is not even listed any longer on some sites. Home values down; taxes up!

  3. Share the Population Boom Study please, Mr. Rizzo. Such a study would have helped make forecasts in our last POCD; the EDC would surely find it useful; and even our Selectmen could use such results in forecasting the need for a sewer system in Higganum; not to mention our School District. We should all have access to such a study. And, you might put more detail in your statements: the boom “starts” in 7 years, and then school kids follow 4-5 years after that? Millennials expected to have 2 kids, 3, 4 or more?, etc. And sources: US Govt? CT State Govt? UConn? Health providers? Tourism board? Etc. Thank you in advance.

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