WESTERLY — The School Committee on Wednesday voted to keep Bradford Elementary School open, essentially rejecting Superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr.’s top recommendation of closing it so the district can move forward with his proposed elementary school redesign.
In voting 4-3 against closing the school, Westerly’s smallest, the committee also agreed to form a committee to assess the district’s elementary schools. That group will report to the School Committee by December 2014.
“We’re postponing the inevitable,” Chairman Dave Patten said before the vote. “Doing that is like death by 1,000 paper cuts. I think we need to start going down the path.”
Patten voted against the motion to retain Bradford and create the subcommittee. He was joined by committee members Mary Raftery and Gina Fuller. Voting in favor of the motion were James Murano Jr., Diane Bowdy, Mario Celico and Jay Goodman.
Improving the town’s elementary school facilities to make them more efficient and effective for students is a priority for school officials, who have said that the time to assess the schools is now.
According to the Vision 2020 Report published in December 2001, the renovation and expansion of Westerly’s elementary schools was scheduled for implementation between 2005 and 2010.
As the school district has fallen behind on that plan, the student population has declined and enrollments among the four elementary schools have become imbalanced. Projections show a drop of 350 students over a 10-year period.
On Wednesday, in front of numerous residents from the Bradford community, committee members decided that closing Bradford School, which has 118 students in kindergarten through fourth grade, was not the way to start.
“I don’t support closing Bradford School,” Murano said. “If we close it, it’s a risky decision and there’s no turning back.”
Bowdy said she was concerned about an enrollment swell at Dunn’s Corners Elementary School if Bradford were to close.
According to data Seitsinger presented before the vote, Dunn’s Corners enrollment would increase to 391 students with the closing of Bradford. The superintendent has said the ideal enrollment range of an elementary school was 300 to 400 students.
Bowdy said she couldn’t vote to close Bradford without a clear plan going forward. As it is, the proposal means “taking kids out of Bradford and pushing Dunn’s to capacity,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Raftery and Fuller argued that there has been a long-term plan in place, the Vision 2020 Report, and Fuller added that residents shouldn’t have looked at it as a school “closing” but as a “consolidation of resources and staff that would be in the best interest for all of the students” and community.
Earlier this month at a special meeting, Seitsinger presented “Optimal Vision,” a working report that listed three options he wanted committee members 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.
Most committee members balked at redistricting, calling it a major disruption for students. But Goodman said he hopes that Seitsinger doesn’t interpret the vote to mean that no changes need to be made, because “there needs to be changes to Bradford School.”
“It is not succeeding,” Goodman said. “It’s the lowest performing school. It’s failing.”
Seitsinger said he will act quickly after the first of the year to gather more information on how to possibly increase Bradford’s enrollment.
“My job now is to move and act,” Seitsinger said.