Public education can be an emotionally fraught issue for many, but that has been especially true in Newtown.
In addition to the razing of its Sandy Hook Elementary School in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012 attack by a gunman who killed 20 first-graders and six staff members, the town has narrowly avoided closing two schools over the last two years: Hawley Elementary School, which dodged being shuttered in June 2015, and Newtown Middle School, whose proposed closure was voted down on Dec. 6.
The move to close Hawley, which opened in 1921, stemmed from a 2014 study commissioned by the town to examine public school enrollment trends. Milone & MacBroom Inc., a consulting firm in Cheshire, reported that all projection scenarios showed a continued decline in enrollment. “The low projections show a 28 percent decline out to 2024-25, while the high projections show a 17 percent decline over the 10-year horizon,” the study found.
A committee of school officials, including Newtown Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, took the Milone report as the basis for its own study, which advised that closing Hawley would save nearly $13 million in building and renovation expenses and about $1.1 million in operating costs.
But Newtown parents were already wary of the psychological effects of shuffling students around the system. About 60 percent of Hawley’s 300 students would have been sent to the new Sandy Hook Elementary, which opened in fall of 2016. Dozens of homemade “S.O.S. – Save Our Schools” signs sprang up around town and roughly 500 parents showed up at the normally sparsely attended board of education meetings.
School board officials capitulated and cleared the way for the new, $50-million Sandy Hook Elementary School’s initial enrollment of about 450 children to be drawn entirely from the Sandy Hook area, with the remainder of Newtown’s public school students in kindergarten through fourth grade continuing to attend the town’s three other elementary schools.
The school board’s Future Forecast Committee in 2016 also presented several options to address the declining enrollment issue, including closing the middle school, which opened in 1953 as Newtown High School, and reconfiguring the school system so that Reed Intermediate School would have housed grades five through seven and the high school grades eight through 12.
But again hearing opposition to the plan from parents, the board voted unanimously on Dec. 6 not to close the middle school.
“Unfortunately, political pressure can get in the way of good decision-making,” Erardi told the Business Journal. “It’s always regretful when elected officials feel pressure to do something that doesn’t take into account what’s right for the children.”
Erardi, who began his tenure in Newtown in April 2014, noted that closing the two schools would have saved the town about $1 million per year. “The question then becomes, do you save the million a year now by closing a school, just to have to build a brand-new school at a cost of $75 million to $100 million in a few years when the trend reverses?” he said.
The superintendent said the school closure issue resulting from declining enrollment is one faced “by every rural and suburban area of Connecticut. The cities are for the most part continuing to grow.”
But emotions probably played a larger part in Newtown than in other communities, he added. Sandy Hook Elementary students displaced by the closure of the original school were bused or driven by parents to Chalk Hill Middle School in nearby Monroe from January 2013 through the 2015-16 school year.
Last summer, some 5,500 visitors toured the new 86,000-square-foot Sandy Hook Elementary prior to its official opening on Aug. 29. “We had private sessions for families, faculty and staff, including those who had left after 12/14, and current staff,” Erardi said. “Everyone who felt they needed or wanted to see it, and be comfortable with it, were welcomed in.”
“This is a school district, a community and a town that were taken to their knees,” the superintendent said. We’ve been able to rebuild, in a number of ways, and refocus on what’s right for the kids as far as the culture and climate.”
“It’s the same everywhere,” he added. “If you can’t make a difference one student at a time, then you shouldn’t be here. But I’m immensely proud of our 1,000 staff members and I think we’re doing a darned good job.”