Parents want more details on plan to consolidate Stonington middle schools

Parents want more details on plan to consolidate Stonington middle schools

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STONINGTON — Longer travel times to and from school for both students and parents, the timing of the elementary school construction schedule, and the seeming push to make a decision about the project in January were among the concerns of parents and residents who attended a public discussion Monday about the potential consolidation of the town’s two middle schools.

About 50 people attended the session held by the Board of Education in the high school cafeteria.

Tim Smith, principal of Pawcatuck Middle School, gave a preamble highlighting some of the issues that favored consolidating the schools, with declining enrollment at the top of the list. He said Pawcatuck Middle is expected to drop to 180 students and Mystic Middle to 220 students in the next few years. Pawcatuck Middle can accommodate 380 students and Mystic Middle can hold between 525 and 625 depending on configuration of classrooms.

In terms of space, the Mystic school had contained more than 500 students in the past and was at least 25,000 square feet larger than the Pawcatuck school, Smith said. Student-teacher ratios would remain the same, with about 23 students per class.

He said a redesign of the lunch schedule, grade level band and chorus, physical education classes, and sports offerings would be necessary to accommodate the larger school population.  

Superintendent Van Riley also spoke briefly about the consolidation allowing for wider opportunities for extracurricular activities in areas such as sports, drama and music. He also said he recommended going forward with the consolidation as it would provide economies of scale and would allow this year’s fourth graders to stay at the elementary school for fifth grade in 2018.

Longer bus rides

The board provided the results of a study of Pawcatuck’s five bus routes and how much longer they would be when taking students to Mystic. The ride times are currently between 18 and 25 minutes and the rides to Mystic would be between 30 and 41 minutes.

Parent Ashley Gillece asked if the board had considered the students who don’t currently ride a bus to school, such as her son. She said it wasn’t as simple as adding 15 minutes to a bus ride, it was about adding a 40-minute bus ride each way, plus added time for parents who need to drive their children to and from school for extracurricular activities.

Resident Sue Jones, who has one child in high school, said the late buses would also be problematic for Pawcatuck students.

“Potentially children could be on bus for well over an hour because of the limited number of buses,” she said. “I ask that can that be kept below one hour

Timing of the decision

A handout at the meeting detailed a month-by-month potential timeline for consolidating the two middle schools by September 2018. Several parents said that schedule was too ambitious considering it was dependent on the completion of the new wing portion of the elementary schools project.

Gillece said she had concerns that if the elementary school construction project was delayed, the timing of the entire consolidation would be thrown off. She asked the board to delay the vote.

“I don’t like that this is all based on construction being on time; originally it was six months behind, now it’s on time,” she said. “If the construction hits any snags after you make this vote, we’re back in the same situation of where do the kids go.”

She asked the board to delay the vote for two years while the elementary construction was being completed and then reassess.

Asking for more time and analysis

Jennifer Ogden, who said she has a fourth grader and an eighth grader in the schools, said the board’s decision seemed hurried when many important details were as yet undecided.

“With all these concerns you have, it just seems so rushed right now that you don’t have these thoughts on parking, the band, the lunch, the sports and you’re going to figure them out later after you make the decision,” she said. “I think you need to figure those out first before you make the decision.”

Brendan Hinchey, who has a third grader and an eighth grader, said he had the impression the decision was “very rushed.”

“My general impression is you are trying to make the numbers support a position that you already have,” he said. “A really forward-looking plan is not consolidating students into a 50-year-old school; if we want to consolidate students why don’t we slow down, get a really good plan and maybe build a centralized school.”

Extracurricular activities

Gillece said adding extracurricular activities sounds great as a concept, but lower-income families will  not benefit from them as much because they often cannot afford the necessary extra equipment, such as cleats for sports, or can’t get to the school to pick up their children.

“You can add as many extracurriculars as you want, but if lower income families can’t do it, they can’t do it,” she said. “There are so many questions not being answered and just hearing ‘extracurriculars’ is not enough reason to close the middle school.”

Other questions

Jones also had other questions, including how the space and parking at the Mystic school would be handled with more students since there is already a lack of parking during events.

“With extra sports and music programs, what about spectators and events running at the same time?” she asked.

She also said the board used the phrase “we’re looking at that,” frequently in answer to questions about details of the consolidation.

“That term is extremely concerning because I’d like to see something solid in writing,” she said.

The board’s next regularly scheduled meeting is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. at the high school cafeteria. The board’s decision on the middle school consolidation is scheduled for Jan. 11.


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