Task force: no obvious school to close
Super favors plan to close two, build one
By Chris Busby
The School Committee task force charged with examining elementary school consolidation options is expected to issue a report that recommends no specific school closures. Instead, the report will present a variety of possible consolidation scenarios, as well as an option that would not close any schools.
Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor, a member of the Elementary Facilities Task Force, or EFTF, said she personally favors one of those options over the rest. That plan calls for closing Nathan Clifford and Presumpscot Elementary schools, and building a new school on the site of the former Baxter Elementary School, on Ocean Avenue.
Not everyone on the task force is as keen on that idea as O’Connor is.
A school consolidation plan must show that significant cost savings would result, said school board member Jason Toothaker, chair of the EFTF. “We need to be able to make a case to do that,” he said, “and many people on the task force, myself included, don’t feel a case was made strong enough to sell that idea, that we have to close schools.”
Data provided to the task force by school district officials projects annual savings of about $225,000 in operating and personnel costs if Clifford and Presumpscot are closed and a new school is built elsewhere. The projections are still rough, since some major costs – like the cost of building a new school – are still unknown. There are also some substantial one-time savings, like over $1 million in renovation work at Presumpscot that would not need to be done.
But Toothaker is underwhelmed. “If saving money is the end result, I think there are so many other ways we can save money,” he said. Among them is reducing administrative personnel costs by consolidating or eliminating positions, he suggested.
“I’d rather bust up this administration and bust up waste than bust up neighborhood schools,” Toothaker said.
O’Connor, however, sees school consolidation as a foregone conclusion. “Given our declining enrollment, it is inevitable that some elementary schools will close during the coming years,” she is quoted as saying in the introduction to a draft copy of the EFTF report.
The task force’s report is expected to be finalized by next week. The school board will discuss its recommendations later in April, and consider what step to take next.
One step being considered is the formation of a so-called “3×3 committee” made up of three school board members and three city councilors. That option was mentioned during a joint school board-city council meeting late last month, and it was discussed further during a closed-door meeting last Wednesday in City Manager Joe Gray’s office.
Mayor Jim Cohen, School Committee Chairwoman Ellen Alcorn, O’Connor, Toothaker, and several other city and school officials were at that private meeting. (This reporter was asked to leave before the meeting began. Gray said it was a private meeting on his personal schedule.)
Reached after the meeting, Gray said the group discussed what the next steps should be once the EFTF report is done, but said no decisions were made. Alcorn and Cohen said they are considering what the charge and membership of such a committee would be, and will bring their ideas to their respective bodies for consideration before another committee is formed.
“It’s important that we move to the next phase of this process,” said Cohen.
Asked about the possibility of forming a 3×3 committee, Alcorn said, “I think something like that will have to happen, in large part because [the EFTF] has not come up with any recommendation, just a variety of scenarios.” The task force’s data and findings will be “helpful information for the next group to pick up on,” she said.
The EFTF “has done excellent work,” said Alcorn, but added, “other things may have made this process more difficult. It’s a very emotional issue when you talk about closing people’s schools, and it’s bound to be messy.”
Indeed, press reports that the EFTF is considering closing schools have roused parent groups to organize and advocate for schools in their neighborhood. Parents in the Clifford and Presumpscot school areas are preparing for a fight, and even parents with kids in schools unlikely to close are getting ready to defend their turf.
Press reports that the task force was considering closing Reiche Elementary School on the West End caused angst and confusion among Reiche parents last month, even though that option was never popular among task force members. In fact, O’Connor’s preferred option calls for a major renovation of Reiche School after a new school is built on the Baxter site.
Clifford – a 99-year-old building on Falmouth Street, near the USM campus – is first on the list of schools slated to receive state funding for renovation, but that money could also be used to build a new school if state education officials approve such a plan. The school board will soon hire an architect to assess whether Clifford should be renovated or replaced, and that determination will be a big factor for any future school consolidation group to consider.
That group would also have to work with the city Department of Parks and Recreation if it wants to build on the Baxter site. There are city playing fields on the parcel being eyed for a new school, and the people and groups who use them are another potentially vociferous advocacy group.
The Baxter Elementary School on the Ocean Avenue property was closed in 2003 due to declining enrollment. It currently houses the school district’s adult education program and an intake center for the multi-lingual program – both of which would be relocated according to an early draft of the option O’Connor prefers.
Presumpscot School, located off Washington Avenue, is roughly half as old as Clifford and is further from the Baxter site than the older school.