BERLIN - Finding more housing for young families to move into town was a recommendation by Drummey Rosane Anderson (DRA) associates, who spent the last few months studying how to best configure the three elementary school districts: Griswold, Hubbard and Willard.
The findings came during a presentation from DRA to the Board of Education Monday night, as the board’s first hearing of the presentation, with no public comment other than the board’s comments.
A public hearing will be held on Sept. 6 at 7:45 p.m. in the Berlin High School auditorium, during which public comments can be made.
The study was commissioned in the spring of this year, said school board president Matt Tencza, after the school board had discussed closing one of the elementary school for the 2017-18 school year in the face of steep budget cuts.
But absent a study on the overall impact to the district, like for transportation in one example, the board halted any action.
“You’re 55 to 64 age cohort is the fastest growing age cohort in town,” said Greg Smolley, project manager of the study for DRA. “At this point, you have more people in that cohort than you do students in your schools. So it is getting to be more and more difficult as that population continues to grow, if it doesn’t have a place to move to it continues to occupy the houses that would otherwise have students in them.”
The study found that 143 births are taking place in Berlin a year, which Smolley said was less than the number of students who graduate each year.
That means more students are leaving the district than coming into it.
However, that number does not include the number of people transferring into the district, Smolley noted. This past year 207 students graduated from Berlin High School.
Along with the aging population, the study said the median age was rising, building permits had been going down, home sales had been “substantially” lower than other towns, and market-rate housing options were remaining steady, which was not a good thing and is pushing potential residents with children to other towns, Smolley said.
“Evaluation of the current market does not indicate any reason for optimism about Berlin’s residential potential for younger families with school-age children,” said Town Planner Mark Kozikowski to DRA as part of the study.
With that in mind, DRA presented five options of actions to take with the elementary schools, including increasing maintenance budgets, investing in upgrades, realigning the district attendance guidelines, consolidating two of the schools or replacing one of the current schools.
“You have to get ahead of the maintenance,” Smolley said. “You need to get the (Capital Improvement Plan) program up so that you’re less reactive.”
The possible opportunity to close Hubbard was presented in as two options.
Option one includes making two Pre-Kindergarten through grade 5 schools.
Option two involves one Pre-Kindergarten through 2nd-grade school and then another school for grades 3 through 5.
Choosing option one would push the classroom sizes on average at Griswold to 24 students and at Willard to 25.
That’s about a 20 percent increase in classroom size from the 19.8 and 20 students, respectively, at the current system.
Teachers surveyed for the study said they preferred small classrooms and the option one grade groupings over the option two groupings.
In order to maintain a 20:1 student to teacher ratio, about 9,500 and 15,000 square feet of space would need to be added, respectively, to Griswold and Willard, the study said.
Option two would increase the class sized by the same degree, but require only 8,500 square feet of space at Griswold and 11,000 square feet of space at Willard, the study said.
The cost to have a school sit vacant after closing it down runs about $100,000 a year, said Smolley.
He added it was important to not change the use of the building from a school, otherwise, the whole building will have to be brought up to the current building codes for a school if it is changed back at a later time.
“You got a really good system here, great people, but the reality of the physical spaces is running away and the reality of the town not growing…you’re not growing the way your surrounding towns are growing,” Smolley said.
One other option DRA presented to address not consolidating or replacing a school was shifting the district lines to decrease enrollment at Griswold, maintain enrollment at Willard and increase Hubbard enrollment.
That would allow for the removal of modular classroom units at Griswold Elementary school that offer small classrooms and cost more in terms of utility use than the rest of the building.
In response to the presentation, board member Adam Salina said he found the study results to be scary, closing an elementary school would not be a wise thing to do and the families will sometimes move from cities to suburban towns for better lives for their kids.
“Based on what I’m seeing from your demographic study, in an aging community, in not properly investing in our schools it sounds like we’re trending in the opposite direction, you agree with that?” he asked. Smolley said, “Yes.”
Cost estimates on making the buildings more modern with better windows, HVAC systems and the like, which is what teachers said they would like to see, should be completed by the end of September, Smolley said.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.