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As Budgets Get Cut, So Do Schools

Grace E. Merritt

June 20, 2010

It was a hard week at the Nathan Hale School in Manchester.

Teachers cried. Students worried about being split up from their friends. Parents wondered where their children will go to school in the fall.

With only four days left in the school year, the board of education voted last Monday to confirm its decision to close Nathan Hale, a red brick school in downtown Manchester.

"My daughter came home crying," said Felix Castro. "She said, 'I don't want to leave my school. I love my school.' "

The school board had indicated earlier that it was planning to close Nathan Hale, but the Monday vote still stunned parents and staff. Parents hadn't even received formal notice of the closure.

"To be honest, I think everybody is in a state of shock," Principal Kathleen E. England said. "A lot of parents really feel like the rug's been ripped out from under them. And the uncertainly about what's going to be happening only adds to the anxiety."

Like Manchester, school systems across the state are closing schools or seriously considering the idea.

Faced with declining tax revenues and pressure to lower spending in a poor economy, school boards are turning to school closings to save on staff, maintenance and fuel costs.

In other cases, a steady decline in the population of school-aged children, as well as competition from magnet and charter schools are factors.

"I'm seeing that it's an option that people were not considering a couple years ago," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

Besides Manchester, Bristol, Shelton and Milford are closing elementary schools. West Haven and Norwich are each closing two schools. Other communities, including Enfield, Bridgeport and Plainville, seriously considered closing schools, but ultimately decided to postpone or drop the idea.

Unlike the past, when school systems would spend months or years planning, communicating with parents, meeting with staff, holding hearings, developing redistricting plans and even planning school-closing ceremonies, some towns are feeling pressured this year to act quickly because of budget constraints.

In Manchester, the school board said they selected Nathan Hale for closure because the school was racially and socio-economically isolated in a poor neighborhood. Transferring students from there to other schools would help improve the racial balance of town schools. In addition, the circa-1921 building was operating at half capacity: Despite efforts to improve sagging test scores, many parents were choosing to send their children to better performing schools.

Closing a school was preferable to cutting programs system-wide, such as art, music, physical education and world languages, Manchester board members said.

"I have a sense that schools are looking to do anything they can to protect their programs and their staffs. In these fiscal conditions, everything's being looked at through a microscope," said Robert J. Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

In Norwich, 67 school employees are being laid off and two elementary schools are being closed to meet a zero increase budget.

"We had to do some dramatic things. That was a necessity," Norwich school system Superintendent Abby Dolliver said.

At the same time that many school systems are facing tight budgets, enrollment has been declining as well. The school-age population statewide has decreased by more than 14,000 students since 2004-05 when the population topped out at 577,398.

And then there's increasing competition from new magnet or charter schools. Manchester, for example, sends 558 students to Hartford-area magnet schools, many of which offer specialized curriculums.

Closing a school is never easy and there has been outcry in nearly every situation.

Parents in West Haven, for example, filed a federal complaint criticizing the decision to close the Molloy School as unfair and based on racism or retaliation. The school, one of two the town will close on Tuesday, is the second-highest performing school in the system and serves mostly black and Hispanic students, about half of whom are economically disadvantaged.

In Milford, parents are petitioning to recall a board of education member who voted to close the Simon Lake School to meet a $2.2 million budget reduction.

In any case, school closings nearly always raise a host of other problems, Cirasuolo said.

Besides angering parents, children accustomed to one school become anxious about moving to another. The morale of school employees often suffers, and there are logistical problems, from moving desks and equipment to rescheduling bus routes.

"It has an impact on everything," Cirasuolo said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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