BOE, residents express concerns over SMARTR plan
By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Thu., Dec. 12, 2013
During the Dec. 9 Manchester Board of Education meeting, members and residents voiced their concerns regarding the school improvement plan proposed by the School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited (SMARTR). The group was charged to come up with a plan that would improve the physical state of Manchester elementary schools while striking a racial balance. The SMARTR committee had presented its plan to a joint meeting of the BOE and Board of Directors on Dec. 3, but the Dec. 9 meeting was the public's first chance to offer comments.
Major components of the recommended plan are the creation of a fifth- and sixth-grade academy by renovating the Cheney building across from the current Bennet Academy, to make sure Highland Park is fully-occupied after the fifth grade moves, to rebuild like new and expand Robertson and either Washington or Verplank elementary schools, close two elementary schools and upgrade the remaining ones. Costs associated with the plan are estimated at $100 million, with $17.4 million of that estimated for the fifth- and sixth-grade academy alone. Of that, about $10.2 million is expected to be covered by a state grant. All work would be completed by the year 2020.
The fact that Waddell is one of the schools the committee recommends closing, in addition to either Washington or Verplank, did not sit well with some residents. “I have two children at Waddell, and I was not impressed with the presentation last week by the SMARTR committee,” said Tracy Mayo. “I understand a lot of work and effort and dedication was put into it, but just because there was a lot of effort put into it doesn’t mean it is the right plan.”
A number of parents and teachers spoke in opposition to the possibility of closing Waddell, citing the school's neighborhood feel, recent renovations and the fact that it is already racially-balanced.
“Our homeowners want to send their children to their neighborhood school, and many of these children walk to school,” said Donna McCarthy Watson, a first-grade teacher at Waddell.
Jessica Carter, who has two children attending Waddell, said she cherishes the fact they can walk to school. “I love simply being able to walk my kids to school,” said Carter. “It’s a memory that they absolutely love.”
Parents also addressed concerns about the educational element of the overall plan. “I need to know that this proposed plan is going to do more than address racial imbalance and funding issues,” said Kim Gorham. “I need to know that the most important thing that the SMARTR committee is considering is what is in the best interest for my child academically.”
BOE member Mary Jane Pazda echoed Gorham’s concern regarding the actual learning aspect of the plan. “When I think about the families who move in or out of Manchester, probably the first thing they look at is not the condition of schools but student achievement,” said Pazda. “I think we’re moving forward with these wonderful new possibilities in terms of facilities, but we can’t forget about the curriculum piece.”
BOE member Neal Leon raised a concern about the physical state of the elementary schools, especially Washington, which is in need of repairs. “I am very concerned about Washington and the fate of that based on the structure,” said Leon. “We can’t lose sight of just what the SMARTR [committee] has recommended, our board has to stand up and make recommendations that are the best for all of the schools.”
Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Richard Kisiel asked to have the demographer look at another scenario that involves keeping Waddell open and possibly closing another school and what impact this would have on racial balance.
BOE Chair Chris Pattacini concurred with Kisiel’s question of keeping Waddell open. “That might mean potentially that Robertson closes if the demographer determines that that would be an appropriate approach,” said Pattacini. “Or it might mean that both Robertson and Waddell stay open and it may sub optimize the SMARTR recommendation, but might actually be something that the community would support.”
The superintendent also raised concern about not planning for swing space to house students while schools are being renovated.
“To make these decisions before February in time for the Board of Directors to put forth a referendum is impossible,” said Kisiel. “You need the time to plan and think this through.”
There are three public forums scheduled to address the SMARTR committee’s recommendations. The first is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. at Waddell. The second is scheduled for January and the third is scheduled for February. Exact dates and locations of future meetings will be announced.