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School closing options discussed

At a community workshop, Dec. 11 at Strong Middle School, the public got a look for the first time at potential plans to close one or more schools in Regional School District 13.

Architectural and educational planners from Drummey Rosane Anderson, Inc., a firm hired by the Board of Education at a cost of $69,300, spelled out a range of options for the district. While emphasizing that they were not yet endorsing any specific plan, the DRA representatives described plans that ranged from doing nothing, meaning keeping all six schools, to reinventing the school system.

All of the options in the middle of those extremes involved closing at least one school.

A demographic study commissioned by the BOE predicted declining enrollment in RSD13. In the months since, BOE members have cautiously avoided speculating about closing a school. In public meetings and the BOE’s website FAQs, closing a school has only been referred to as one of the potential options being considered.

Jim Barrett, a DRA education facility planner who ran the workshop, made that option far less hypothetical, presenting five different district reconfigurations with fewer schools.

“We want to cover the widest range possible,” Barrett said.

The options had several common characteristics. They each created a traditional middle school at Strong School with sixth through eighth grades. Each plan maintained both the Integrated Day and Contemporary programs. While maintaining the two programs, four of the five options presented housed the two programs in the remaining elementary schools, creating so-called “neighborhood schools” where either program would be available.

Korn Elementary School, Lyman Elementary School, and Memorial Middle School were each targeted for closure in different plans, Korn most frequently, followed by Lyman.

As an example, the first presented option closed Korn Elementary School, converted Strong Middle School to a sixth through eighth grade facility and Memorial Middle School to a fourth and fifth grade school, and ended Brewster Elementary School and Lyman Elementary School at third grade.

Other plans had more complications, such as creating a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten center at Korn or Coginchaug Regional High School. A different option expanded Brewster Elementary School and Lyman Elementary School to fifth grade and Strong Middle School to sixth, closing both Memorial Middle School and Korn Elementary School. That last option involved adding classrooms to the elementary schools.

“We’re still early on in the process,” Barrett said during his introductory remarks. “Although we’re offering these options, we’re not advocating for them at this point.”

Barrett said that DRA was still listening to feedback and was not locked in to the presented options. DRA did not give handouts to the audience, Barrett said, because they did not want the public to regard the five options as finalists.

According to BOE chair Kerrie Flanagan, DRA was selected as the planning firm in part because of their community outreach. At a workshop designed to listen to the community on Oct. 29, members of the public voiced a strong defense of the two programs and the firm appeared to have listened to that feedback, as none of the options closed a program.

Although the options presented all maintained both the Integrated Day and Contemporary programs, DRA representatives again pointed out, that arrangement was out of the ordinary. At one point during his introductory remarks, Barrett used the word “unique” to describe the dual programs four times in four sentences.

Like the previous session, the Dec. 11 workshop broke out into smaller groups and the “Contents” group, run by DRA’s Education Planner Paul Moore and dealing with educational content, was the largest. Some of the feedback focused on keeping Integrated Day and Contemporary in separate schools at the elementary levels.

The additional busing costs, cited at the meeting as $40,000 per year, were worth the expense according to several speakers. One parent noted that programs at separate schools brought Durham and Middlefield together for a “unified district.” One parent questioned whether Lyman could maintain its status as a HOT school if the Integrated Day program were split between two schools.

One parent questioned the goal of filling the schools to capacity. “I get a little worried when we’re talking about maximum capacity,” she said, adding that smaller class sizes could help with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Durham First Selectman Laura Francis asked if, once the educational needs were met, the extra space could be used as a community resource. “Space has been a problem and there are a myriad of other uses if there is a surplus,” said Francis.

Francis pointed out that Durham currently rents space for the Durham Activity Center and said that extra space could be used for shared administrative offices for Durham and Middlefield, recreation activities, or community uses.

In their closing remarks, both Flanagan and DRA’s Moore noted the sentiment in the audience for separate schools for Integrated Day and Contemporary. The audience was less than a 100 attendees, about half of the previous workshop, and comprised largely of parents and educators. The last of the three DRA workshops will take place on a yet to be scheduled date in January. That last workshop will discuss options and their implications to be presented to the BOE.

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