Closing a school is never an easy task and rarely is it done without extreme emotion. The Stonington Board of Education’s 5-1 vote Thursday night to close Pawcatuck Middle and send Pawcatuck students to Mystic Middle had all the usual challenges and drama plus the overriding and generations-simmering context of joining upper to upper-middle class Mystic versus middle to working-class Pawcatuck — one town, two distinctly different villages.
Most of these students will be together, soon enough, in high school. Still, in making this decision, the board, and municipal leaders as well, have an added challenge in ensuring a smooth transition. .
So for the benefit of that mission, let’s look at these two populations that will be mingling in the school year that starts in September 2019. All numbers below are based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2016.
We are told that most kids are well aware of possessions and clothes and cars and gadgets, so for better or worse we will start with income. Pawcatuck’s estimated median household income for 2016 was $52,083 versus Mystic’s of $85,446. The state’s median household income was estimated at $71,755.
In Pawcatuck, 3 percent of households had an income of $200,000 or more and in Mystic it was 15.9 percent. For the state, it was 10.2 percent.
In Pawcatuck, 16.3 percent of individuals had incomes below the poverty level. In Mystic it was 4.8 percent and statewide it was 10.4 percent.
About the only similarity in these two parts of town is in diversity or, more accurately, lack thereof. The Census Bureau identifies 92.4 percent of the population in Pawcatuck as white and in Mystic, 93.6 percent. The next largest racial group is identified as Hispanic at 2.7 percent in Pawcatuck and 2.8 percent in Mystic.
The justification for the merger is declining enrollments and the ability to provide consistent offerings for all middle school students. The $800,000 in estimated savings is hard to ignore as well, especially if you’re a board member working on the district budget. Additionally, proponents have said one middle school should ease the transition to high school.
Gordon Lord, a resident with four children who will be affected by the consolidation, said that since he didn’t grow up in town he didn’t subscribe to the Pawcatuck versus Mystic mentality.
“I am for the merging of the schools because I think it makes sense.” Lord said. “I didn’t grow up around here but I’m not a big fan of the Pawcatuck side and the Mystic side, it’s one community, so we can’t let the building define who we are as a community.”
That’s a great attitude. Easy for someone without the history, but a good goal for all nevertheless. And Pawcatuck of 2017 is far from the Pawcatuck of 20 years ago. Many have moved in and made improvements in all neighborhoods. There are even developments filled with “McMansions,” a concept that would have been foreign to the village decades ago. The realities of the real estate market, quality of life issues and so many close-knit, “walkable” neighborhoods have made Pawcatuck a much more attractive place to live now than it was years ago. And Westerly’s vibrant downtown helps.
We’re hopeful that all parents take the high road in this transition for the sake of their children and the sake of an educational concept that the experts say is the right thing to do.