The subcommittee studying the closing of a junior high school will be provided estimates next Tuesday of how much the department would save if it closed either Aldrich or Gorton.
Considering the department’s resources, Dennis Mullen, director of secondary schools, said he would prefer to see that amount divided by two [two schools] rather than three.
From an enrollment numbers point of view, closing a junior high makes good sense. Each of the city’s three junior highs have a capacity ranging from 1,273 to 1,311 students, although, because of declining school enrollment, they have 411 to 517 students each. Closing one of the schools and dividing that population among the remaining two schools will still be operating below capacity.
Mullen knows selection of the school won’t come without some upheaval. At last Wednesday’s meeting, teachers and parents filled the administrative meeting room. Some carried signs and some who couldn’t get into the room chanted, “Let us in.”
“It is extremely difficult to close a school because of allegiances,” Mullen said of attachments to a particular school by students, parents, alumni and neighborhoods.
“We need to honor the feelings and passionate pleas, but we have to do what’s best for everyone,” Mullen said. Mullen chairs the short-term subcommittee of the 19-member school facilities planning committee. An underlying principle, he said, is to ensure the best education possible and that closing a junior high school doesn’t mean degrading the program.
“We’re going to try to make it even better, but we need to move on,” he said.
How fast that happens is unknown, but a decision could be reached in time to close a school this year.
Acting superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the subcommittee would make its recommendation to the School Committee. He said hearings will be held before the School Committee rendered a decision.
“Everybody gets an opportunity to be heard,” he assured.
The subcommittee got a picture of how a two-junior high system could operate at last week’s meeting. They were provided class schedules, the numbers of rooms and the teachers required by school.
Winman Junior High, the newest of the three, had been included in the initial study but was dropped when the subcommittee focused on leaving the current segregation of grades by school in place. Options that had been considered were the inclusion of sixth graders in the junior highs to make them 6 to 8. They are now 7th and 8th grades. Other suggestions included expanding senior high schools to 8-12 and using Winman as a career and technology school, expanding upon facilities in place at the Toll Gate Complex.
Under the mock schedules provided last week, subcommittee member Mark Carruolo said the department would need to spend an additional $400,000 to $500,000 on busing. Chief of staff for Mayor Scott Avedisian and a former city planner, Carruolo said it also appears there would be 10 fewer teachers. He estimated that savings at about $1 million.
In information provided the group, the department projects “cost avoidances” for building maintenance, upgrades and renovations to meet fire codes in the range of $5 million to $6 million, depending on which school is closed. Next Tuesday, the panel will be given a comparison of the overall savings of closing Aldrich versus Gorton.
Because of the projected declines in enrollment, Carruolo sees no option to closing a school if the system is to operate effectively.
“We know we need upgrades,” he said, “but resources are limited.”
Looking beyond closing a school and eventual use of the former school, Carruolo said Aldrich has “the most residual value.” He pointed out that it is on a bus line, opposite a commercial plaza, next to a fire station and on a major artery.
Whether redeveloped for housing, as was done with Lockwood School on West Shore Road, converted into offices, as was done with the former Lakewood and Apponaug Elementary Schools, he said Aldrich “has numerous options versus Gorton.”
As the school administration has already relocated some administrative offices to the former Greene Elementary School adjacent to Gorton, Carruolo suggested Gorton might also serve for administrative offices. In the case of Aldrich and Gorton, Carruolo said they need to look at deed restrictions about using the properties for anything other than education.
Looking long-term, and from the former role as city planner, Carruolo said the department needs to examine trends and projections “and base its plan on where it is going to end up.” He expects that would be a two-junior high school system plus a career and technical facility.
He also acknowledges with its aging infrastructure – Toll Gate and Winman that opened in the early ’70s are the newest of the schools – the district faces upkeep, efficiency and operational issues.
“The older construction is not conducive to newer technologies,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting is at 3 p.m. at a location to be announced.