STONINGTON — After months of meetings, discussions and emotional public hearings, Thursday is the day that the Board of Education will vote on whether to consolidate the town’s two middle schools.
The vote will take place at the board’s regular meeting at Stonington High School cafeteria at 7 p.m.
The board’s steering committee, which studied the pros and cons of combining Mystic Middle School and Pawcatuck Middle School at the Mystic location, released a report in September delineating factors such as declining enrollment at all grade levels, relocating the fifth grade from the middle schools to the elementary schools, providing equal programs and activities at both middle schools and the financial uncertainties of state funding.
The pros of consolidation comprised a savings of $800,000 to $1 million annually, primarily through the elimination of staff salaries, the committee’s report indicated.
Mystic Middle has a capacity of 525 to 625 students and can easily hold the population of both schools, which is about 220 for Mystic and 180 for Pawcatuck. With a capacity of 380 students, Pawcatuck Middle cannot hold the combined present middle school population nor the projected maximum enrollment of 441 in 2021-26.
Combining schools would also provide greater educational opportunities, especially in world language, music, arts and technology, which would otherwise be limited by the difficulty of providing qualified staff members to work split or part-time positions at both schools, according to the report.
The school administration could also relocate to Pawcatuck Middle, which would allow the town to sell the Central Office building in Old Mystic, unofficially valued at about $800,000.
The cons of consolidation comprised bus rides for students who could have walked to Pawcatuck Middle and longer rides for students who already ride buses to school. The board did a study of Pawcatuck’s five bus routes and found the ride times would increase from 18 to 25 minutes up to 30 to 41 minutes.
Combining the two schools is also dependent on the timely completion of the expansion of Deans Mill Elementary School and West Vine Elementary School because the fifth grade must move back to the elementary schools in order for the consolidation to work.
During the public hearings in December, a number of parents expressed concern that the board was rushing the decision to consolidate and asked that the elementary school project be completed first. Others said the decision to consolidate was based too heavily on saving money.
On Wednesday morning at his office, Superintendent Van Riley said he recommended the board consolidate the two middle schools as of September 2018, citing stronger academic programs, the expanded capacity of the elementary schools upon completion of construction, and financial savings for the town.
“We can provide a stronger academic program and more opportunities for all students,” he said. “All students will have access to every program — we wouldn’t have to duplicate programs at two very small schools, so to me that’s the important part.”
He said the board would vote on whether to do the consolidation or not, and, if the consolidation is a go, decide when to move forward.
“As far as when to do it, my proposal is to do it this coming fall because we can — we can fit the fifth grade in the elementary and we can combine 6, 7, 8 at the Mystic Middle School,” he said. “Why would we wait if we can do something good for everybody right now?”
Addressing the need for increased parking at Mystic Middle School, which parents said is already problematic during events, Riley said the consolidation would entail adding 30 to 50 parking spaces at the school.
He acknowledged the auditorium and gym facilities in Mystic cannot accommodate an all-school event such as a play or concert and recommended use of the high school for such gatherings.
“When the high school was renovated, part of the reason was to make the auditorium a community area,” he said. “If you want to have a large group, you have to have it somewhere else; that’s not going to change with more parking.”
Riley said if the consolidation goes through, it won’t be the first time a school has closed in Stonington.
“If you look back at the history of the town, the borough had an elementary school, Mystic had an elementary school, things evolve and close and open,” he said.