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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Déja vu in the schools - Reconfiguration not Wallingford’s first elementary school argument

As Published in the Record Journal Sunday May 30, 2010

By Samaia Hernandez
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2266

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WALLINGFORD — In 1983, when the Board of Education voted 5-4 to close Parker Farms School, not only did it lead to a major grassroots campaign by parents, but also to the first recall election of its kind.

Two board members in favor of the closing were voted off the board the following January in what became a town and state first. Two years later, the Connecticut Superior Court outlawed recall elections of public officials.

Yalesville School had been selected by district officials as the building to close since it was older, smaller and in need of repairs. When the board voted to close Parker Farms instead — at the last minute, citing economics and enrollment figures — many parents were outraged.

Students from Parker Farms were sent to Highland School and Yalesville. Then, in 1986, a different board voted 7-2 to close Yalesville and re-open Parker Farms at a cost more than three times the original savings from closing Parker Farms.

Twenty-seven years later, there are some parallels: Again, the country is in a recession, again enrollment figures are trending down, again the education budget has been slashed by Town Hall and again the school board has voted in favor of a controversial measure that impacts its elementary school system.

This time, parents banded together online, starting a “$O$: Save Our Schools” campaign and pleading with the board to reconsider breaking up neighborhood K-5 schools in place of buildings that serve grades K-2 or 3-5 only.

A recall election is out of the question this time around, but some parents, across party lines, have already declared that on Election Day 2011 they will not be voting for school board members who supported reconfiguring the schools.

State Rep. Mary G. Fritz, D-Wallingford, would have seen her name on the Jan. 27, 1984 recall ballot. Fritz narrowly missed the election after resigning from her post as school board chairwoman the previous summer to take up a spot on the General Assembly, which she has held ever since.

“Parker Farms needed $300,000 in work,” Fritz recalled. “That’s what that was all about. And Yalesville didn’t need any work.”
“I couldn’t justify spending money to renovate when we could close it,” she added. “What happened in the end? They got a new school and Yalesville got a new school. Then Yalesville became a model for the subsequent renovation project in the ’90s.”

In 1983, the mayor cut $850,000 from a $17.4 million budget request. This year, more than $2.5 million was trimmed from an $86.4 million proposed school budget.If Fritz were on the board this time around, the minority vote against reconfiguration would likely have been higher. She said she sympathizes with parents who are concerned about grade clustering in a town of Wallingford’s size and has questions about the transportation component that will require more buses and cuts into costs savings of close to $200,000.

“I think it’s going to be very hard for people to get adjusted to it; this is a major overhaul,” Fritz said.

Chet Miller, a Republican school board member, was also on the board in 1983 and is now serving a second term after an almost three-decade hiatus.

Back then, he was part of the minority vote, but like most board members today he is very much in support of school reconfiguration. He didn’t believe enrollment would continue to decline in the early ’80s, and it didn’t.

“It wasn’t very long after they closed Parker Farms and Yalesville that they had to be reopened, and at exorbitant costs compared to what we saved: well in excess of one million dollars,” Miller said.

Unlike some vocal parents, Miller doesn’t view reconfiguration as a loss of neighborhood schools, but rather an expansion.

“No matter what anybody decides, there’s always going to be those people who disagree. It’s not a winning position that you can ever take. But ultimately what you try to do is what’s going to be best educationally for the students. Everything I have found will, I believe; it will be much better educationally,” he said of the plan that is reported to result in smaller classes and to more evenly distribute resources across all eight elementary schools.

Board Chairman Thomas Hennessey, a Republican, isn’t worried about political fallout from the reconfiguration vote. He said he stands by his position that the change is an educational tool with a growing number of supporters.

“It’s like night and day between redistricting and closing a school, and we’re not doing either,” Hennessey said.

And this time, the vote in favor of reconfiguration was far from along party lines, as it was for closing Parker Farms.

Democrat Valerie Ford, the longest-serving board member, now in her 15th non-consecutive year and eighth-term, is in agreement with Miller and Hennessey when it comes to reconfiguration.

“I don’t make decisions on whether people are going to vote for me or not,” said Ford, who started her career with the Wallingford schools as an active member of the Cook Hill School Parent Teacher Organization fighting for smaller class sizes. She was a registered Independent before seeking support from both the Republican and Democratic Town Committees.

“Turn us all over; good luck,” said Ford, who told the Record-Journal, before this budget season, that she is not planning to seek re-election after this term. “We did the best we could. We made the best decision that we thought we could make. You try to do the best you can and I really have a lot of faith in our Central Office staff and in most of our teachers and administrators.

“I really think this is going to work and I really don’t think the 50 or so people who show up at meetings represent what everybody is thinking out there.”

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