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Parents protest Juniper Park closure

Date: 11/25/2008

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD Parents of students at Juniper Park Elementary School filed into City Council chambers last Thursday with one clear message emblazoned in red ink on their white T-shirts: "Save Our School."

Parents came to voice their opposition to the School Department's choice to move fourth and fifth graders to South Middle School next academic year. Westfield Public Schools has leased the building at 715 Western Ave. from Westfield State College (WSC) for the past 40 years; however, negotiations between the two parties has yielded a proposal to transfer the two grades to free up one-third of the building for WSC, therefore reducing the cost of the annual lease.

According to information released by WSC, "The School Department would like to pay the College less than the total cost incurred by the College for the Juniper Park School. The only way to lower the annual rent is to reduce the amount of space in the School used by the School Department. During recent lease negotiations with the College, the School Department suggested reducing its use of the School and its subsequent rental expense by one-third during recent negotiations."

The document also noted that the School Department currently pays $454,987 to rent the building, while the college covered the necessary maintenance and repairs at a cost of $675,000 during fiscal year 2009.

In a letter to Superintendent Shirley Alvira from WSC Vice President of Administration and Finance Timothy Murphy dated Oct. 15, Murphy wrote, "While all of us at Westfield hold this partnership in high regard, it is also incumbent upon us to uphold as our highest priority our own commitment to the Commonwealth and to our own students, present and future. Given the pressures and concerns that accompany the current fiscal crisis in the state, we cannot commit our state allocation or students fees to subsidize Juniper Park. Simply, we are not seeking to profit financially from the relationship, but we cannot maintain the school at a deficit. All of us in the public sector are experiencing the pressures and concerns that accompany fiscal crisis in the state. Faced with financial realities, we must explore all avenues to pursue economies and ensure maximum quality and opportunity for our students."

Parents at the City Council meeting last week asked members of the council to slow down the transformation process.

"I don't believe we've been told the truth [about the negotiations]," David Pelletier, a father of three children currently enrolled at Juniper Park, said. "Juniper Park is more than just a roof over our kids' heads, it is a link between Westfield State College and the city."

David Wallis, father of Juniper Park second grader Madison Wallis, told Reminder Publications that he does not agree with transferring two grades to South Middle School next year.

"I'm a teacher myself [at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School] and I feel that students should stay together," he said. "I wouldn't want her [Madison] at a middle school."

Madison said she attended the City Council meeting in her white SOS T-shirt to "honor my dad for saving our school." She added that she does not want to leave Juniper Park.

City Councilor at-large Charlie Medeiros explained that a council Ad-Hoc Committee is being formed, including councilors John Liptak, Mary O'Connell, Brian Sullivan, James Adams and two parent volunteers in order to remain included in the negotiations.

"We want to find out what the truth is also," Medeiros said. "I didn't like the way that whole thing was handled, that I have to read about it in the newspaper."

Adams said, "I've heard so many things from the college and superintendent, none of which jive. I will try to buy at least another year's worth [of time] for the children at Juniper Park. I know we're gonna have to get out of Juniper Park [but we] need to look at this a little bit harder."

Michelle Bonini, member of the Juniper Park Parent Teacher Cooperative and mother of two children enrolled at Juniper Park, said, "It breaks my heart because this is the first year that my kids are in school together and it's frustrating that they will be on the same schedule but in two different buildings and that will complicate their life and mine."

She added that she is also concerned that transferring the fourth and fifth graders out of their school could be devastating to their social wellbeing.

"Kids are resilient and if we put a great spin on it they'll be OK," Bonini said, "but what about those marginal kids and those parents who are not as involved in their children's education? It's a bad solution to a really tough problem."

Mayor Michael Boulanger and Superintendent Shirley Alvira each declined to comment about the ongoing negotiations and the future of Juniper Park.

Craig Phelon, news coordinator for WSC, said that no further information can be released at this time as WSC is still in ongoing negotiations with the School Department.