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First Restructuring Meeting Held by BOE Was Well Attended

By Kathy Brown.

Approximately 175 people attended the first of two informational meetings held on Thursday, February 8, 2018 by RSD #17’s Board of Education about the proposed restructuring of the schools to occur in the 2019/20 school year if the Board of Education votes to move forward next month. Another 75 people watched HaddamNow’s Livestream of the meeting. The plan would move all the fourth graders in the district to Haddam Killingworth Middle School, to create an Intermediate School on the HKMS campus along with the fifth grade (HKMS would also house the grade 6-8 program, but be under separate leadership). This plan would also close Haddam Elementary School, leading to approximately $1 million a year in staffing and infrastructure savings.

Suzanne Sack, the Board member who leads the Strategic Capital Planning Committee, was quick to reassure the public that the school grounds and building would be maintained until a buyer could be found for the property. The first 30 minutes contained a presentation describing the background of the plan, which has been in process for over 18 months by the committee, then the floor was opened up to questions, which went on for almost 3 hours. The people who spoke were mostly against the plan, but near the end, some people came forward to say either that they thought the plan was fantastic or that they had been swayed by what was said during the meeting.

The next meeting will be held in the auditorium of Haddam Killingworth High School on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm. If you have any questions, please see the District’s website, click on the District Restructuring Information button on the front page, which will bring you to the District’s FAQs, as well as a button for submitting questions to the Superintendent and Board of Education.

Joanne Nesti, Chairman of the Board of Education, introduced Suzanne Sack, who introduced the Board of Education members in the audience, then asked the audience to show by raising their hands who lived in Killingworth, who lived in Haddam, and who had children in the schools. From the raised hands, it looked like the crowd was equally split between Haddam and Killingworth residents. Ms. Sack then gave a brief background of the work that the Strategic Capital Planning Committee undertook in the 18 months that they have been working. In 2016, the SCPC was set up to identify long-term capital improvements and costs, and to determine how to utilize capital assets most effectively and efficiently. They looked at trends affecting schools today, birth and housing start rates for the last 10 years in both communities, how our communities’ culture affects education (such as class sizes, and neighborhood schools), instructional objectives, and how much it costs to keep our schools running each year. They met with the Board of Education, and kept them apprised of findings and eventually brought them the proposed scenarios that could better utilize our schools.

Next, Howard Thiery told the crowd the lenses that the scenarios were filtered through such as does it promote educational excellence? is it a proper fit for our declining enrollment? One proposal rose to the top. We would go from three elementary schools (BES, KES, and HES, which are all Kindergarten-grade 4), HKMS (grades 5-8), and HKHS (grades 9-12) to two elementary schools (KES, BES, which would be Kindergarten-grade 3), HKMS (which would house an intermediate school comprised of grades 4 and 5, and a middle school comprised of grades 6-8), and HKHS. The two programs on the middle school campus would have separate programs with separate administration. It would also have its own room, its own faculty, and it could have its own entrance, its own schedule, and it would have improved programming for grades 4 and 5.

Ms. Sack then returned to the podium and summarized what this scenario would do: maximize HKMS in which we made a considerable investment, it maintains our communities’ standards, like class sizes, and it is sustainable over time. This scenario “sets us up for success for many years to come,” said Ms. Sack. The recommendation after talking to the leadership from both towns would be to close Haddam Elementary School and merge those students into Burr Elementary School. It would be possible to make the change for the 2018/19 school year, however, the Board of Education wants to take the time to “do it right.” Ms. Sack went on to detail the next steps: additional vetting, visiting the schools, another community meeting on February 21, and in March the Board of Education will consider and vote on the proposal. They could decide to do it as planned on this timeline, another timeline, they could choose to get more information, or possibly, do nothing.

Next came the Q & A portion of the meeting, which went on for almost three hours. Many questions/concerns were answered, and Howard Thiery and Suzanne Sack took turns answering and responding, depending whether the question was about education or capital questions. A sample of questions/concerns are listed below, with a summary of the responses:

  • the lack of a playground at HKMS (response was that it could be added if that is what parents wanted),
  • concerns about fourth graders riding buses with eighth graders (response was that they could have the K-5 students ride on the same buses, and drop off some students at the elementary schools and some students at HKMS),
  • would the fourth graders be able to take a foreign language (response was that it is unknown at this time)
  • why was HES the school chosen to close (HES is much older – almost 100 years old, and smaller, and because it is in the center of town, it is more likely to be sellable; Burr has its own air handlers, central A/C, built in the ’70s)
  • where will the preschool be located that is currently located at Burr? (that hasn’t been decided yet, but we will continue to have one)
  • what is the budget savings? (approximately $1 million in a $42 million budget)
  • someone suggested we split the district into the two towns, and Killingworth could have KES and HKMS, and Haddam could have HES, BES, and HKHS (response was that the communities would have to decide that, not the school district)
  • would there be separate entrances for the two levels at the HKMS campus? (response was there could be)
  • what would the lunchtimes be? (response was that level hasn’t been determined yet)
  • was there a stipulation when the land was donated for HES that allows it to be sold? (response was that the Hazen family originally stipulated that the land had to be used for education, but that restriction has been removed from the deed. Ms. Sack said that Swan Hill could be donated as a preserve, and specified that the building/land was owned by the district, not the town)
  • will class sizes go up? (the same class size parameters we have now will continue)
  • have you talked to the teachers yet? (response was that leadership at the schools helped develop the various scenarios, but teachers are going to help design the actual programs. We have 18 months to work out the details “so all the concerns are put to rest.”
  • is the class size a fire code number or an educational number? (response was that it was operational/educational efficacy, and they were our communities’ current standards)
  • could the plan be delayed until the HES building was actually sold so that people didn’t have to drive by a “sad lonely building overgrown by weeds?” (the response was that the buildings and grounds would be maintained until it is sold. Zoning would have to be followed. “The right solution has to be found” for the sale)
  • have you visited other school districts that have the same model? (they have talked to superintendents of those districts)
  • would we change the name of Burr Elementary School? (that would be up to the community)
  • isn’t HES safer because it’s in the center of town (both schools are safe, and covered by fire departments and troopers)
  • will savings be given back to the taxpayers or will they go to fix the crumbling high school? (at almost 3 hours into the meeting, Ms. Sack said “it’s my secret hope to renovate the high school as part of this plan,” to which Mr. Thiery quipped “it’s a poorly kept secret.” Mr. Thiery also said we will need to invest in our schools in the next 10-15 years, and if we have fewer campuses, we will be able to do that more efficiently.)
  • we need to start preparing the children for the transition by doing more cross-school activities
  • fourth graders shouldn’t be getting off the bus by themselves (response was if that was what the community wanted, that could be arranged with the bus company)

There are FAQs listed on the district website. More are being added each week, and if you have a question, there is a button on the top of that page, to send an email to the district.

Jen O’Neal, head of the PTO at Haddam Elementary School spoke up during the Q & A portion of the meeting. She asked people to think of the children, and not themselves. She said putting the fourth and fifth graders together was a “phenomenal idea” and asked people to have faith.

One thing that was brought up is that because the declining enrollment has been much more pronounced in Killingworth (see graph above), that Killingworth is paying less now than it was in 2012. When the budget increases, Killingworth doesn’t actually pay anything more. Haddam has been bearing those costs, and Haddam’s mil rate has gone up 7 mils in that same amount of time.

Ms. Sack said “We are asking for a tremendous amount of trust” from the community.  “Help us develop this program so that the community is as comfortable as we are.” The next Community Input Meeting will be February 21, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. at the HKHS Auditorium in Higganum.

The part that was livestreamed by Haddam Now is available HERE (the first two hours). Unfortunately, the battery died at 9:10 p.m. so the entire meeting was not livestreamed/recorded.