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Editorial: School committee vote leaves angst to be continued

The decision on Wednesday by the Westerly School Committee to keep open Bradford Elementary School in Westerly, which went against the recommendation of superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr., was described by committee chairman David Patten as choosing instead a death “by a thousand paper cuts.”

The board’s 4-3 vote to keep the 118-student school open represented the third time in two years that such a vote was taken. And that means it was the third time in two years that the school’s community, the teachers and parents, went through the angst and the uncertainty that comes with these discussions.

In justifying his recommendation to close the school, Seitsinger said research in the field indicates that an elementary school with 300 to 400 students is one that provides services in the most efficient way. Instead of voting to close the school, the committee voted to form a subcommittee to review the district’s elementary schools over the course of the next year with a report and, supposedly, a recommendation by next December.

Board member Diane Bowdy voted to keep the school open, claiming Seitsinger’s plan to send most of the students to Dunn’s Corners Elementary likely would result in overcrowding there. Jim Murano called it a risky decision with no option for going back. Gina Fuller voted to close the school, urging residents and educators to see the change as an opportunity to consolidate resources in a way that would benefit the students involved and the district as a whole.

The numbers alone would seem to be enough, but proponents of the school say the low enrollment is a plus on the education side. And some say the school is the only remaining identity that the Bradford section has. The fabric mill that employed so many for so long is closed and the fire department is in the process of being absorbed by the Dunn’s Corners department.

They say the school represents the heart of the community.

The discussion reminds us of the decision to end childbirth services at The Westerly Hospital. With an average of about one birth per day and projections for fewer than that in the near future, hospital leaders could no longer justify staffing with skilled nurses a unit that on some days may have no patients. The hospital has survived, and thus the greater good was served by making a painful decision to eliminate one service.

But a school may be different. This decision affects many more people on a daily basis. A neighborhood school provides smaller class sizes and makes it more convenient for parents to volunteer. Are neighborhood schools just a warm and fuzzy feel-good concept?

At some point, a town has to decide whether maintaining an older building is simply part of the cost of small-town, rural/suburban living. Do we want kids’ school days to include an hour-long bus ride? Do we want up to 400 students in a school — is the cafeteria and the nurses’ office ready for that? Seitsinger said closing Bradford and consolidating students at Dunn’s Corners would bring enrollment there up to 391, just shy of the top end of what he says is an optimal enrollment. On the other hand, he has indicated that the district is due for an overall enrollment decrease.

There is no easy answer. Seitsinger says research indicates closing is the right answer. We like the concept of neighborhood schools and feel it’s a safe bet that many families are willing to pay the tax bill to keep these schools open and to get the vote out to ensure it happens. Does anyone really envision a lower tax bill after a small neighborhood school closes?

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