State Board of Education approves Groton's plan to correct racial imbalance in its schools
Hartford — The State Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved Groton’s plan to correct racial imbalance in its schools.
The approval is contingent on voters approving a referendum to build one new middle school and convert its two middle schools into elementary schools.
School Superintendent Michael Graner said a referendum could go before voters in November.
“This is a huge step forward for us,” he said after the state board vote.
Groton Board of Education Chairwoman Kim Watson said it adds some immediacy to the debate.
“I think this kind of help adds some ‘oomph’ to the discussion,” she said.
The proposal would build one Groton middle school for all students in grades 6 through 8, or about 900 students, and convert West Side and Carl C. Cutler middle schools into elementary schools for students in grades pre-kindergarten through 5. Three older schools — Claude Chester, S.B. Butler and Pleasant Valley elementary schools — would close under the plan.
If voters do not approve the referendum, the Groton board would have to submit an amended plan to address the racial imbalance within 90 days of the vote.
Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the state board, said she remembered being told the previous school construction plan would solve the problem. Then it failed at the polls, she said. Voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposed $133 million school construction plan commonly referred to as “Phase II” in 2011.
“What assurances can you provide to us today that the referendum will not fail and if it does, what is your plan B?” she asked Graner.
He told her he believes voters opposed Phase II because it was too expensive, and this plan could be done for less. The district anticipates reimbursement of up to 80 percent from the state, Graner said.
The proposed middle school would also be built next to Fitch High School, an idea that has gained widespread support, Graner said.
Watson said the district learned from the failed referendum and has created a task force that blends different boards to build community support.
The School Facilities Initiative Task Force, which is looking at school sites and developing more specific plans, has not released a cost estimate yet.
But Graner would propose one referendum for all three projects — to build the middle school and renovate and convert the existing middle schools into elementary schools. A timeline provided Wednesday would hold the referendum in November, submit a construction application to the state in June 2016, and start building the middle school in June 2018. The new middle school would open in August 2019. Work would then begin on the converting the middle schools. The new elementary schools would open in August 2020.
Groton was cited in May for an imbalance at Claude Chester, less than 10 months after moving 16 percent of its elementary school students to correct a racial imbalance at another school, Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School.
The state considers a school out of balance if the percentage of minority students there is greater or less than 25 percent of the district average. Groton has an average of 43 percent minority students at the elementary level. The average at Claude Chester at the time the state cited it was 68.2 percent.
Both middle schools and S.B. Butler have also had pending imbalances in the last several years, according to data provided to the state board. A pending imbalance exists when the minority population of a school is greater or less than 15 percent of the district average.
Groton has been struggling with racial imbalance for 10 years, Graner said.
The state cited Groton for an imbalance at the former Eastern Point school in 2004 and again in 2007. The following year, the school district opened Kolnaski Magnet and Northeast Academy and closed four elementary schools, including Eastern Point.
In 2009, Kolnaski Magnet was found to be imbalanced. In 2010, school officials proposed the Phase II construction plan to deal with the imbalance and aging schools, but voters defeated it at referendum. Redistricting followed in September 2012.
In September 2013, students were redistricted again. Then last year, the state identified Claude Chester as racially imbalanced.