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Options vetted at school facilities study

A large crowd from Durham and Middlefield attended a Facilities Utilization Study meeting, put on by Drummey Rosane Anderson, Inc.. The firm was hired by the district to study approaches the school system can take in the face of declining enrollment. Close to 200 people listened to James Barrett open the Oct. 29 event at Coginchaug Regional High School, with general remarks, and then broke into four groups arranged around different topics.

Barrett told the crowd that early planning had the larger influence and saved money compared to decisions made later on. “What we’re trying to do is move the planning earlier,” he said. Barrett also emphasized, as have members of the Board of Education, that no decisions have been made, remarks that seemed specifically designed to ally fears of school or program closings.

Paul Moore, DRA’s educational planner, opened his breakout group dealing with educational programming by saying, “I want to puncture a rumor right off the bat —which school do we close?” Moore said no plans had been put in place to do that but, like other DRA representatives and BOE members, referred to declining enrollment as “an opportunity” presenting a range of options.

What to do with that opportunity was the unanswered question of the evening.

Moore’s workshop, titled “Currents,” drew the largest crowd and Moore heard a strong and consistent defense of keeping both the Integrated Day and Contemporary programs.

“What’s special about the district is that parents can choose which program to send their children to,” one parent said.

“This is fascinating to us,” said Moore, who also noted that the parallel program arrangement was “fairly unique” and “one of the keys moving forward.”

When asked for a show of hands in support of the parallel programs, the participants gave nearly universal approval.

Dr. Victor Friedrich, one of the BOE’s new members, asked the participants if the two programs would be compromised if they were housed in the same building in the younger grades and also got an affirmative response.

One teacher provided a counterpoint, noting that working in the same building would provide greater opportunity for collaboration, especially important with the change to the Common Core standards. Another parent also noted that keeping children too separated could lead to rivalries and tensions.

Unifying the children while keeping the programs distinct provided one of the open questions of evening. Oanh Stephan, summarizing the views expressed by much of the audience, said that there were two good programs in town and resources should not be devoted to studying that again but devoted to groups and activities that unite the students.

Many ideas expressed during the “Currents” session expressed support of the status quo. Parents and teachers spoke in opposition to the idea of mixing K-8 grades together or bringing grades 7 and 8 into the high school. Another spoke in favor of keeping John Lyman Elementary School’s structure of mixed age classes and status as a H.O.T — Higher Order Thinking —school.

Ideas that went against the status quo included using declining enrollment as an opportunity to establish a voucher program or a magnet school with the empty seats. Another suggested that the declining student population was a chance to reverse the trend towards larger class sizes.

Other breakout groups addressed issues of security in the buildings, discussing active versus passive security. The audience dealing with demographics asked whether the declining enrollment was a short term bubble or a permanent change.

According to BOE members, DRA was chosen to perform the Building Utilization Study, at a cost of $69,300, in part because of the firm’s desire to collect community feedback.

“This is an open process,” BOE chair Kerrie Flanagan said in her opening remarks.

The thought was echoed by BOE member Bob Fulton in his closing remarks. “We’re all making these decisions together,” Fulton said.

There will be two other community workshops. One on Dec. 11 will discuss options and one in January will concern presenting options those options to the BOE.

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