Par­ents push to save school

Many say clos­ing of Had­dam El­e­men­tary not a ‘done deal’

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Cas­san­dra Day

HAD­DAM — The fight isn’t over, say op­po­nents of the Re­gional School Dis­trict 17 school board’s de­ci­sion this week to close the his­toric el­e­men­tary school at the cen­ter of Hig­ganum Vil­lage at the end of the aca­demic year.

The plan is for the dis­trict to move kinder­garten through third­graders at Had­dam El­e­men­tary School, built in 1947, to Burr Dis­trict El­e­men­tary School, about 4 miles away, and turn the mid­dle school, which now houses sixth through eighth grades, into an in­ter­me­di­ary fa­cil­ity.

Stu­dents in fourth and fifth grade would be grouped into one area of the mid­dle school, sep­a­rated from the older youth. Burr and Killing­worth el­e­men­tary schools would be­come K-3 pri­mary schools, ac­cord­ing to the plan.

“Un­til the build­ing sells or the doors close, I don’t call it a done deal un­til then,” said Had­dam na­tive Jen­nifer Petrillo, who is among a group of about 25 par­ents and res­i­dents who call them­selves the Save HES Com­mit­tee. Her daugh­ter at­tends kinder­garten at HES. Petrillo grad­u­ated from the school, as did her brother, fa­ther and un­cles.

She ad­mits, be­cause of that his­tory, she had a vis­ceral re­ac­tion to the clos­ing.

“That was my knee-jerk in the be­gin­ning. Once the emo­tional sting wore off, I re­al­ized all the other ef­fects on the busi­nesses, the par­ents, the teach­ers, the chil­dren, the town cen­ter,” Petrillo said.

Re­gion 17 Chair­woman Joanne Nesti, a Had­dam res­i­dent, agrees the dis­trict is an ex­cep­tional one. For ex­am­ple, Had­dam-Killing­worth High School was just

named a Blue Rib­bon school, a des­ig­na­tion it has held for sev­eral years.

“There is good ed­u­ca­tion go­ing on here. I don’t think we ever as a board would do any­thing to change that. We are talk­ing about a build­ing, and we are talk­ing about go­ing from five cam­puses to four, but it de­pends on your view of what ed­u­ca­tion re­ally is,” Nesti said. “Is it the bricks and mor­tar, is it the teach­ers, the dy­namic of the sys­tem, the lead­er­ship of the su­per­in­ten­dent, of the ad­min­is­tra­tors?

“Do I think it’s go­ing to be any less good be­cause of one less build­ing? We would never al­low that to hap­pen. The stan­dards are go­ing to be main­tained. This is sim­ply about re­duc­ing the num­ber of cap­i­tal as­sets we have to deal with,” Nesti said.

The clo­sure would mean less main­te­nance, for ex­am­ple, one less roof and one less boiler sys­tem would have to be re­placed, she said.

Petrillo is con­cerned about the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, which is mov­ing away and sell­ing their homes at a re­duced rate be­cause of how prop­erty val­ues have gone down. Mil­len­ni­als, those age 30 to 39, are mov­ing in not only be­cause it’s more af­ford­able than ever, but be­cause they know their chil­dren will re­ceive a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, she said.

“The an­chor and foun­da­tion of a small town is a school,” said Petrillo, an ac­coun­tant. That’s how you get peo­ple to come. Once you have an amaz­ing school sys­tem, then it sells it for you.”

Katie Pack­tor, a land­scape ar­chi­tect with a third­grade son at HES who will be in the in­au­gu­ral class at the in­ter­me­di­ate school, also has a daugh­ter in eighth grade. She, too, has hope the BOE will re­con­sider, although Nesti said the de­ci­sion is fi­nal.

“There def­i­nitely is a push right now for the board to take a step back to re­con­sider their de­ci­sion, and, at least, if noth­ing else, put a pause on their plan,” Pack­tor said.

As far as en­roll­ment de­clines, Nesci said, years ago, prior to her ten­ure, peo­ple com­plained stu­dent num­bers were down, yet bud­gets were ris­ing every year.

“We agreed the trends were not sup­port­ive of five sep­a­rate school cam­puses. That is when the big­ger­pic­ture idea of go­ing from five to four started to take hold,” she said. “The data drove us to ex­actly the place the trends told us it would go.”

Petrillo said she wor­ries about the safety of the youngest stu­dents, who will trans­fer to Burr. The speed limit in the cen­ter of town is 25 miles per hour and the cross­ing guard sta­tioned there pre­vents speed­ing.

“As a par­ent, hav­ing a school in the cen­ter of our town where peo­ple drive by 10 times a day is much more safe than a school you didn’t even know was there,” she added.

Nesti said con­sol­i­dat­ing schools is not unique to Re­gion 17.

“If you look around Con­necti­cut, you will see a lot of towns go­ing through this. It’s painful in every sin­gle one of them. We’re not dis­agree­ing with that. It’s painful for us,” she said.

Gina Block, a mem­ber of the Had­dam Plan­ning and Zon­ing Com­mis­sion and mother of a 2-year-old boy at HES, said her prop­erty abuts HES. She walked to school grow­ing up in Massachusetts, “which I thought was a great ex­pe­ri­ence, fos­tered in­de­pen­dence at a young age,” so she en­joyed that as­pect when de­cid­ing to move to Had­dam.

Pack­tor agrees.

“I won’t say that was the sil­ver bul­let but it was cer­tainly a de­cid­ing fac­tor in our home pur­chase,” said Pack­tor, whose neigh­bor with chil­dren ages 1 and 4, re­cently sold her home and moved to Guil­ford. “One of the rea­sons she sold was the clo­sure of HES on the hori­zon.”

Pack­tor said her son takes the bus to HES in the morn­ing. She walks to pick him up in good weather.

“Peo­ple seem to think that’s a brave move be­cause of Route 154. For my­self and my fam­ily, it’s an added value. If we had a side­walk on ei­ther side, we’d see a lot more peo­ple walk­ing,” Pack­tor said.

Data shows cur­rent en­roll­ment is 2,030 dis­trict wide, and trends would move that num­ber closer to 1,750 by 2021.

“When you see trend­ing like that, five years out, you can feel pretty con­fi­dent,” Nesti said. “Any­thing af­ter that does get a lit­tle murkier.”

The dis­trict’s in­fra­struc­ture could sus­tain a pop­u­la­tion growth, she added.

“Even if an uptick were to slowly oc­cur, we still have ca­pac­ity in our re­main­ing four build­ings to han­dle it without over­crowd­ing, in­creas­ing class size. We’re over­build for the pop­u­la­tion we have now and cer­tainly over­build if it con­tin­ues to de­cline,” Nesti said.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit rsd17.org/dis­trict2. shtml or visit Save Had­dam El­e­men­tary School on Facebook.

Con­trib­uted photo

The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion voted to close Had­dam El­e­men­tary.

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