BRISTOL - The Board of Education has voted 4-3 not to consider closing any schools for the near future, at least until the old Memorial Boulevard School reopens as an arts magnet school.
In January, the board tabled a feasibility study on a reconfiguration of the public schools. The study recommended keeping Chippens Hill Middle School as the lone middle school, converting Northeast Middle School to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and eliminating two elementary schools.
The board’s Operations Committee originally endorsed that recommendation. However, several members of the board, the public and school employees expressed concern about the effect on staffing, class sizes, school capacity, whether K-8 schools can create a sense of school community, and other issues.
After further discussion, the committee recently decided to endorse the study’s “do nothing” option instead. Republican members Jeff Caggiano, Jennifer Dube, and Kristen Giantonio voted against.
In 2017, the board hired DRA Inc. to conduct a study of the school buildings’ condition as well as demographic and housing pattern changes in the city. The architectural firm, based in South Windsor, had done the district’s previous feasibility study about 10 years ago and also designed West Bristol K-8 School.
The study includes the assumption that the arts magnet school will be open for grades six through 12 in a few years.
Karen Hintz, committee chairwoman, said the “do nothing” option is “a misnomer.”
“We’re never going to do nothing,” she said. “If a school needs a roof ,we’re going to replace the roof.”
South Side Elementary School needs a new HVAC system, she said. The board and superintendent will work closely with City Hall and the Board of Finance to get that project on the city’s 10-year capital improvement plan.
While plans for the magnet school are being made, “we will use this time to look at population, at needs, at exactly how many kids are going to end up in that school, so that we can be ready. If we have to take a school offline we’ll be making that determination when we have more information. We don’t want to do anything prematurely,” she said.
Dube said she was concerned that there may come a time at which the district needs to redistribute students or close a school when the magnet school opens.
Board Chairman Chris Wilson said it’s clear that, “if our population trends continue as they are, in all likelihood a school will be closed when the magnet school goes online, but I think it’s premature at this point to make any decision on that.”
“What other information do we really need to make a decision?” Caggiano asked.
Some previous school population projections haven’t panned out, Hintz said.
“When I first came on the board, we saw some projections that showed school population declining at a rapid rate, and in fact it was a much more gradual slope. So I don’t feel comfortable making a decision today, based on projections that far out.”
Caggiano said the arts magnet school would effectively be another high school, so “realistically we should be looking at creating one general high school.”
He noted that even the “do nothing” option means the city will be spending about $58 million to just keep the current schools operational, in addition to spending $56 million in state money to renovate Memorial Boulevard.
Board member Thomas O’Brien, who with Caggiano is a member of the Operations Committee, said he is willing to consider having a single high school “but what we need first is information” on what it will cost to staff and operate the arts magnet school once it is completed.
Caggiano said his point is that “putting money into HVAC at South Side, which by the way I think we should do, then what if we decide to close South Side two or three years from now?”
He added, “Not having a plan at this critical juncture is a mistake, in my view.”
O’Brien said he wouldn’t vote to spend money on South Side if he thought there was a possibility it would be closed, the study listed other schools that were more likely to be closed.
The feasibility study projects the arts magnet school would have an enrollment of about 525 students, averaging 75 per grade. Approximately 56 middle students each would be drawn from Chippens Hill, Northeast, West Bristol, and Greene-Hills schools, and about 150 each from Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern high schools.
The study, which cost $57,000, presents four options. Its recommended option, known as Option 4, would mean the district would have three K-8s, one middle school, and four elementaries, closing Edgewood and Stafford schools.
Option 4 was cited as the most cost efficient. It would require extensive renovations to Northeast, and South Side and Hubbell elementary schools, which would cost the city about $46.5 million, even with state reimbursements.
In contrast, “do nothing,” which was Option 1, was estimated to cost the city about $58 million, even with state reimbursements, due to extensive renovations needed at Northeast, Edgewood, South Side, Stafford, and Hubbell schools.
Option 2 would convert Chippens Hill to a Pre-K-8 school, demolishing Northeast and building a new Pre-K-8 school on the Northeast site, and renovating Ivy Drive and Mountain View elementaries into Pre-K-8 schools.
Option 3 would convert Chippens Hills to a PreK-8 school, replace Northeast with a new middle school building, and close South Side and Stafford elementaries, leaving just four elementaries - Edgewood, Hubbell, Ivy Drive, and Mountain View.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.