STONINGTON — The Board of Education’s decision on middle school consolidation is coming up on Jan. 11, but at Thursday’s meeting one board member requested that more specific details of the plan be provided before the vote is taken.
The board is proposing the consolidation of the Pawcatuck and Mystic Middle schools in the Mystic location for either the fall of 2018 or in 2019.
Board member Jack Morehouse, who has two daughters in the Stonington schools and one who has graduated, said he received a letter from a concerned parent asking him to make a fair and responsible decision, but added that he didn’t have enough information to vote on the issue in January.
“For me, in order to make a sound decision, one that creates less chaos, I feel like I want more specifics,” he said.
Among his concerns were whether Mystic Middle School’s current music program would be kept in place, particularly the jazz program, which he said was exceptional.
“I would like to know, because it is an award-winning program, are we going to keep the essential elements of what we have in place currently or we are going to do something completely different?” he said. “I heard from the superintendent possibly something different and that concerns me.”
He also wanted more details of the parking at Mystic, which he said was already problematic when parents attend an event.
“Have we gone to planning and zoning, have we contacted the highway department to find out how we can reconfigure the road, or the driveway or the parking lots to accommodate the extra students and potential parents?” he asked. “I hope that before I vote, the superintendent can be more specific.”
Morehouse said that while he respects the superintendent, Van Riley, the board has made mistakes over the years, particularly in eliminating a middle school program called Crickets that emphasized science, technology, engineering and math. He said the program had been educationally beneficial for his two older daughters but was dismantled before his youngest daughter could be part of it.
He said he didn’t want the board to make a similar mistake.
“This is a big decision and much more consequential, and for that reason I’d like to know a little bit more before I cast my vote,” he said. “Believe me, I undersand all the benefits and I think it’s potentially a great opportunity, in theory, for our school system, but it’s the actual ‘what’s going to happen’ that I’m nervous about.”
Riley said he was preparing a report with more specifics that would be available on Jan. 4 or 5, about a week before the vote.
Resident Sue Jones said she was concerned about such a short timeframe. “I would respectfully request some sort of special meeting or that those reports be done a little quicker and have another consolidation meeting before the vote,” she said. “I reiterate, this feels extremely rushed. I think if we wait three weeks for a report and then one week after that there’s a vote on it, I don’t think that’s going to leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth.”
Earlier in the meeting, Riley said he recommended the consolidation, citing declining enrollment as one key factor. Pawcatuck Middle School is expected to drop to 180 students and Mystic Middle School to 220 students over the next five or six years. The Mystic school, which can accommodate between 525 and 625 students, is at least 25,000 square feet larger than Pawcatuck, which can hold 380 students.
He also said the purpose of the consolidation was about better educational opportunities, not just finances. If the consolidation goes through, the district could save about $800,000 per year. “The real focus is what are the educational advantages, the impacts of having one larger middle school,” Riley said.
In terms of busing, Riley said the school counted 50 students who would normally walk to the Pawcatuck school, but 15 of those would be going to fifth grade at the elementary school, reducing the number to 35.
He also detailed the options for transitioning the fifth grade back to elementary school from the middle school. If the transition were to happen next September, Deans Mill School fourth graders would attend fifth grade in the new wing under construction there. At West Vine Street, current fourth graders, who are now at the West Broad Street School, would attend fifth grade in the new wing at West Vine.
Riley recommended moving forward with the fifth grade transition to the elementary schools and the middle school consolidation in the fall of 2018. If the board decides to consolidate the middle schools in 2019 instead of 2018, then Riley recommended keeping the fifth grade at the middle school for one more year.