Balancing Fairfield's Schools: Sherman parents resist any student movement

Board of Education Chairman Phil Dwyersaid at Monday's meeting that the board would not be looking to consolidate the two high schools, or close an elementary school. Fairfield,CT. 3/19/18
Board of Education Chairman Phil Dwyersaid at Monday's meeting that the board would not be looking to consolidate the two high schools, or close an elementary school. Fairfield,CT. 3/19/18Genevieve Reilly / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The school board continues to look at the best possible use of all its school facilities, but it took steps Monday to reassure parents what it won’t be doing.

It won’t consider closing an elementary school, consolidating the two high schools into one, or use “pocket redistricting” — moving a small group of students from one school to another.

Milone and MacBroom, enrollment consultants hired by the Board of Education, had come up with a variety of scenarios to deal with better building utilization as well racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School. Of those, Superintendent Toni Jones identified five that would actually be possible, which included two of the options quickly discarded by the board.

Many Sherman School parents showed up at the meeting, urging them to not redistrict their students. The proposed scenario called for moving 98 to 100 students from Sherman to Holland Hill.

That, parents said, would be devastating to their children, and to them.

“We made a plan when we purchased our home with, where we wanted our children to go to school,” Kathleen Raymond said. She added it would be more costly to the district to have to bus students to Holland Hill who had been walking to Sherman.

Sarah Ference said if her children were redistricted to Holland Hill, it would take them 2.5 miles away. “I can stand on my back porch and see Sherman,” she said. “This would be devastating.”

As for closing an elementary school, Verna Hill resident Mark Shalhoub said he thinks the school board understands the disruption and anxiety this creates.

“What’s been happening to our community as a whole, we haven’t recently had that much good news,” Shalhoub said, citing traffic woes, increased taxes, and General Electric leaving. To add talk of closing schools and redistricting creates an anxiety, he said.

“I’m proud to be a Fairfield resident,” Shalhoub said, but having something like that hanging in the air makes it “really hard to justify” staying. “Dwight is a school that works. It’s almost like a family,” he said. “It will be crushing not only to the kids, but to the adults as well.”

Even though “pocket” redistricting was not one of the scenarios on the list, the school board added it to the agenda just so that it could definitively vote to reject it. If there were to be any redistricting, board members said, it would be district-wide.

As for closing an elementary school, school board member Jessica Gerber said, ”I think this is one topic we should really put to bed. I just don’t see how we can go down this road.”

Gerber pointed out the town’s past history when it closed elementary schools. Not only did operating budgets continue to increase, the schools later needed to be reopened.

“Those enormous savings you would hope to see by closing not one, but four elementary schools did not happen,” Gerber said.

Chairman Phil Dwyer said when he lived in Rye, N.Y., his children’s’ elementary school had just one section for each class. There was really no economic reason to keep it open but by the time his own children were in high school, that elementary school needed portables, and by the time they graduated from high school, their elementary school had an addition constructed.

“What if we did what a certain Board of Finance member suggested,” Dwyer said, and closed MIll Hill instead of renovating it. “It then takes three or four schools to absorb” that student population, he said. “At the moment, and based on accepted enrollment projections, I don’t see that we can close it unless we’re ready to do something else.”

Dwyer said their consultants have said that based on the district’s guidelines on things such as class size and building equity, they really can’t close an elementary school.

“I think previous incarnations of this board have been very careful to put schools in places where they’re needed,” board member Jeffrey Peterson said. “I haven’t seen a super compelling financial cast that we need to get rid of buildings. Simply shutting schools down is not something I’m interested in right now.”

Consolidating the town’s high schools was dismissed with very little comment.

“There’s no real scenario where this would practically work,” Dwyer said. “There’s not enough seats at either school and this is an issue people have strong feelings on. We made that choice and now we’re moving forward.”

Reconfiguring elementary school grades will stay on the list of possible scenarios, at least for now.

“My gut says no, but I would like to be briefed by the administration, on the educational side,” Peterson said. The Milone and MacBroom proposal looks at reconfiguring the grades at McKinley and Jennings, in an effort to eliminate racial imbalance. For example, kindergarten and first grade at one school, the remaining grades at the other.

He said he was involved in a recent meeting with the Jennings PTA. “The tone of that room was that they were not in favor of it,” Peterson said.

Dwyer said the consultants were asked to identify possible solutions to the racial imbalance issue. “They were not asked what would this look like district-wide,” he said. “They didn’t get into the pluses and minuses. Should we look at the pluses and minuses? I think it’s worth at least another meeting.”

“I don’t know if I’m in favor of it or not,” board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said. “We can’t say no to everything because the first reaction is it’s different.” She said it would be worth finding out the financial and educational impact.

Gerber said it would be helpful to get more details, and to truly understand the implications, as a district, or just at two schools.

In addition to continuing to discuss grade reconfiguration in the future, the board also agreed to keep the topic of relocating the Walter Fitzgerald alternative high school from its current location on Biro Street.

“The building is not in good shape,” Dwyer said. “It is not the same quality school building we offer to the rest of our school population. We should move this up on our agenda.”

Board member Jennifer Leeper said with an enrollment dip, it might be possible to find room to bring Walter Fitzgerald “back in-house, if you will, and buy us a little more time to find a more pleasant house.”