October 20, 2016 09:42AM
By ANNA MARIA LEMOINE
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — School Committee member James Murano Jr. made a plea to the dozens of residents — many representing the Bradford Elementary School community — who attended the committee’s special meeting Tuesday night: Try and leave the emotion out.
He said that the school board had “heard about how everyone loves it, it’s a good school, kids benefit from being there… I’m not arguing that point, it’s a given.”
“All the emotion and love for Bradford is not going to change what we’re here discussing,” he said, which was ultimately the fate of the school. “Is there a compelling reason to close it? In all honesty right now, I don’t think so. Give us a compelling reason to keep it open. Compelling enough to end this debate once and for all.”
For the fourth time since the 2008-09 school year, the fate of Bradford Elementary, the district’s smallest school and oldest building, is in the hands of the School Committee.
This time, closing the school is Superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr.’s top recommendation, one that he believes will allow the district to move forward on a plan to improve its elementary school facilities, making them more efficient and effective for students.
No vote was taken Tuesday at the nearly three-hour meeting. And the earliest a vote will take place is after the first of the year.
Another special meeting is tentatively planned for Jan. 7 so additional data and details on Seitsinger’s elementary school redesign plan can be flushed out.
“This is an emotional issue for all of us at Bradford School,” Principal Debra Pendola wrote in an email. “As the educational leader of Bradford School, I can now only speak as a professional. I will support any decision that the Westerly School Committee and the superintendent of schools make.
“I have the utmost confidence that together, they will make an informed decision based on research and data.”
In a working report called Optimal Vision, Seitsinger lists three options he wants the School Committee to consider: closing Bradford School; keeping Bradford open and redistricting to increase Bradford’s enrollment; or changing nothing and planning for a bond issue in the next two to three years.
“I want a decision,” Seitsinger said. “So we can move forward.”
The district’s declining enrollment — projections show a 350-student drop over a 10-year period — and limited residential development, along with an imbalance in the elementary schools, are driving the discussion, Seitsinger said.
“How do we move into the 21st Century,” he said, “improve performance, improve service.”
But Tuesday night’s presentation left committee members with more questions, many concerning school capacity if they vote to close Bradford and what the town’s elementary schools will look like with redistribution and-or redistricting.
Would Bradford’s students be redistributed to all schools or one school? Murano said. “My concern is any redistribution would put all schools over capacity,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Bradford’s enrollment stood at 118 kindergarten through fourth-grade students. The school also houses the district’s preschool program, which includes 63 students.
Dunn’s Corners Elementary has 292 students, Springbrook Elementary 329 and State Street Elementary 359.
According to the Seitsinger’s report, if Bradford School closes, the other three schools will approach “what we believe to be an ideal student number of between 325 and 350.”
“Where are we going to put 120 kids?” Committee Member Jay Goodman said. “I don’t get it.”
Parents in attendance had concerns, too.
“My concern is the condition of the rooms in each school, I’m not sure they’re ready to exceed capacity to the point of overcrowding,” said Mike Sullivan, whose 7-year-old son attends Bradford. “And where are the preschool students going to go? All students need to be taken care of, and I don’t see where they’re all going to go”
According to the report, if Bradford School closes, the district would redistribute its staff, students and materials. Each of the three other buildings also would include pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade.
“It doesn’t look like to me, as a citizen of Westerly, this is the option,” Sullivan said. “I can’t advocate for closing. There’s no compelling data.”
Murano also brought up questions about what would happen to the building and its 3.9-acre site. Murano said he couldn’t make a decision on closing Bradford without knowing “what the alternative would be.”
Seitsinger said the building would be kept as part of the Westerly Public Schools, and listed alternatives for the space that included making it an early childhood center or community center.
But residents said it’s the school and its students that make it the center of the Bradford community.
“To make that decision to close this school and redistrict those kids,” Anthony Bardi, a parent of two Bradford School students, said, “that community is gone.”
School officials do agree that the time to look at the town’s elementary schools is now.
According to the Vision 2020 Report published in December 2001 — on Tuesday, School Committee members recognized Joseph Cugini and the Vision 2020 committee and their good planning — the renovation and expansion of Westerly’s elementary schools was scheduled for implementation between 2005 and 2010.
“This is not about one school against the other,” committee Chairman David Patten said. “It’s a decision that will be made for the district as a whole.”