With school enrollment declining and with all three of the city’s junior high schools operating at less than half-capacity, the committee charged with facilities planning is not faced with whether to close a school but with which one.
Acting Superintendent Richard D’Agostino is on a fast track to get answers.
Since an organizational meeting Dec. 7, D’Agostino has divided the 19-member group into short-term and long-term subcommittees. The full group met again on Jan. 2 and on Monday; the short-term subcommittee started its task and is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 30.
If D’Agostino or other administrators have a plan, they’re not revealing it. D’Agostino does not want to influence the committee’s conclusions.
“That’s up to the committee,” he said in an interview Friday. “The data is there to examine and to make recommendations.”
D’Agostino hopes to bring a plan to the School Committee before spring, which means the committee could close one or more schools at the end of the current academic year.
Mark Carruolo, chief of staff to Mayor Scott Avedisian, believes closing a junior high school this year is possible. Carruolo serves as a member of the subcommittee.
“I think they are methodically going through the process, providing the information to make an informed decision,” he said Tuesday.
Leafing through a binder provided to committee members, Carruolo said he has a good picture of the system. The one thing he sees missing at this point is a busing schedule reflecting the impact of closing each of the three junior highs. With that, he said, a recommendation could be imminent.
The statistics reflect what the state population is experiencing. Warwick school enrollment, which was 9,615 as of October, is less than half of what it was in the early 1970s. Ten years ago enrollment was at 12,206 and in another nine years it is projected to drop to 8,430 according to a study performed by the New England School Development Council.
Dennis Mullen, director of secondary schools, chairs the short-term subcommittee. His counterpart for elementary schools, Robert Bushell, heads the long-term subcommittee.
But, as D’Agostino explains, arriving at a recommendation is not as simple as comparing school capacities and enrollment and concluding the students of one school can be easily housed in one or more of another. The condition of the buildings and what they may need in the form of fire code and renovations to accommodate new technologies must be considered. Then there are issues related to class weighting, where a single student in terms of the teacher contract is counted as more than one because of special needs, and of what requirements may be made of the department in the future.
A key unknown is whether the department will be required to provide all-day kindergarten, as some legislators are pushing for. Full-day kindergarten would not only require additional classrooms, which it appears could be accomplished by including 6th grade into the junior highs, but also the hiring of additional teachers and teacher assistants. Those added personnel costs are in the range of $4 million according to Bushell.
At Monday’s meeting, members were given three options for dealing with declining enrollment at the junior high schools. In addition to closing one of the schools and distributing students between the other two, options listed were moving district 6th graders to the three junior highs and a combination of the first two options that would close a junior high and create two 6-8 schools.
Committee members were also provided a list of advantages and disadvantages to closing a junior high school.
The advantages include: a cost avoidance of $4 million to $6 million, depending on the building for capital improvements; a reduction in per pupil busing costs as there would be fewer buses; a diversified curriculum that would be cost efficient; a reduction in overall costs or economy of scale; an increase in maximum building utilization; maintenance of a level of quality services to students; and the potential that a set amount of state funding for technology, which has not been determined, would be used for fewer buildings.
The list of disadvantages is loss of community, crowding at the two remaining junior highs and with an increase in students on buses, an increase in routing time.
Carruolo discounts the first two disadvantages. From his perspective, the sense of school community exists at the elementary school, not the junior highs. As for crowding, he refers to the department’s own data that shows even with dividing the enrollment of one junior high between the remaining two, those two schools would each have reserve capacity.
The committee was also provided a list of advantages and disadvantages of moving the 6th grade to junior high. Those lists that contain 27 points range from more appropriately meeting the academic needs of students and a broader curriculum to a reduction of some elementary programs if sixth graders were not in the schools, teacher certification and adjustments sixth graders would need to make.
Carruolo said the committee did not get into a discussion of how moving the 6th grade into junior high would impact elementary school enrollment and open the possibility of closing additional elementary schools.
There has been no discussion of closing a senior high school, although, from looking at current and projected enrollments, that would be possible in a couple of years when enrollment drops even more precipitously.