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O'Shea proposes new school model

Date: 3/15/2010

Budget deficit leads to discussion of closure of Memorial School

March 15, 2010

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM - The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee voted unanimously last Tuesday night to approve a $37,799,269 budget for fiscal year 2011 (FY11).

This budget is a decrease of $100,434 or 0.26 percent from the current fiscal year - and the first time in the district's history that a budget has been decreased.

Even with the smaller budget, the district is still facing a $1.5 million deficit. Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea presented two options to the School Committee in regards to meeting the budget gap. One option is to eliminate two administrative positions, nine high school positions, two middle school positions, eight elementary positions, a reorganization of special education, a one-week shut-down, clerical and paraprofessional reductions, negotiated givebacks and increases in athletic, student activity and parking fees.

The other option is a new school model that would involve the reorganization of grade levels and the closing of Memorial School on Main Street in Wilbraham.

The New Model

O'Shea explained that a number of causes led to the possibility of changing the school model in Wilbraham, including state budget projections, the budget deficit, declining enrollment and building facility needs.

School population has been falling since 2002 and is projected to continue to decrease into the foreseeable future. The enrollment at all three elementary schools - Stony Hill, Memorial and Soule Road - has been declining, and O'Shea said the current grade configuration is "getting harder and harder to sustain."

Currently, the three elementary schools house grades two through six. Under the new model, grades two and three would be taught at Stony Hill; grades four and five at Soule Road; and grades six through eight at Wilbraham Middle School.

The school configuration in Hampden will remain the same.

Some of the benefits O'Shea listed for the new model were that it would creates an upper and lower elementary model which allows for specialization; focused curriculum, supervision, instruction and both professional development and training; and focused delivery of special education services.

"Normally, we would consider something like this over a period of many months," O'Shea said, "but this is the best way to protect our educational priorities and class size."

If Memorial School is open next year, four out of 12 classrooms will be empty.

The projected savings that would come with the closing of the school would be $535,000 in staffing (7.0 elementary teaching positions, the principal, the nurse, the library aide and the secretary), $201,000 in facilities and operations costs and $65,040 in food service costs for a total of $806,500 in first year savings.

The estimated savings from year two on would total $768,600.

If the School Committee were to vote to close Memorial School, it would effectively cut the deficit in half. This option would lead to the aforementioned eliminations at Memorial School in addition to the loss of three high school positions, five elementary positions, a reorganization of special education, the one-week shut-down, fewer clerical and paraprofessionals reductions, negotiated givebacks and a smaller increase in fees.

In addition to these savings, O'Shea noted that Memorial School is looking at needing $1.5 million in capital improvements over the next five years that can be postponed if the school is closed.

It will cost the district $37,900 a year to keep Memorial "in mothball status," according to O'Shea.

"The critical thing to remember is that we face reductions either way," O'Shea stated. "They will be less severe if we adopt the new model."

Gathering Input

John Broderick, a Wilbraham resident and a parent to students in the district, voiced his concern after the presentation of the possible new model. He was worried about the isolation of age groups at each school, the loss of community schools and how the new model would split up siblings.

"Nobody wants to close a school but we're in difficult times," School Committee Vice-Chair Scott Chapman said.

Chapman made a motion at the March 9 meeting to have O'Shea host three public information sessions about the new model before the School Committee votes on it at their March 30 meeting. Those sessions will take place in the Minnechaug Regional High School auditorium on March 15 at 7 p.m., March 19 at 1 p.m. and March 24 at 7 p.m.

As for the building itself, the school in question is still under lease to the district from the town of Wilbraham for the next four years.

"The future use of Memorial is to be determined by town officials and the School Committee," O'Shea said.

"It takes courage and leadership to design and propose such a strategic change that we are contemplating," School Committee Chair Peter Salerno stated. "We take this step recognizing that our new model will continue to provide educational excellence for all the children of the district."