Stonington school board approves middle school consolidation plan
Stonington — The Board of Education voted 5-1 Thursday night to consolidate the town’s two middle schools beginning in the fall of 2019.
Under the plan proposed by Superintendent of Schools Van Riley and school administrators, Pawcatuck Middle School will close and all middle school students will attend the larger Mystic Middle School, which will be renamed.
Fifth-grade students who now attend the middle schools will move back in 2019 to Deans Mill and West Vine Street elementary schools, which are in the midst of a $67 million renovation and expansion project.
Riley had recommended the consolidation take place this coming fall, but the board voted 4-2 to delay the implementation until 2019 to give teachers time to upgrade the curriculum and make scheduling changes and for physical improvements to be made to Mystic Middle School.
Board member Jack Morehouse, who voted against the plan and has asked numerous questions about the project over the past several months, said he has struggled with the decision. He said he still has concerns about the consolidation, especially the effect on busing and music programs. He said he also is worried about what happens if the declining student population rebounds.
He said he has received numerous calls, emails and visits from people opposed to the plan, and said he wished the board has surveyed middle school parents about their feelings on the project.
But board member Candace Anderson said that while she understands the loss felt by Pawcatuck parents, she said the change will allow the school system to sustain the quality of education that residents expect for students. She said the consolidation will provide greater educational opportunities for students.
“We have the opportunity to create something special here,” she said.
She added children are responsive to change and they will be enthusiastic about the consolidation, which will offer them the opportunity to make more friends. Before the board made its decision Thursday night, most parents supported the consolidation but had concerns about issues such as the potential for long bus rides, as well as the effect on sports teams and the schools’ award-winning music programs.
Resident Paul Sartor, who led the K-12 School Building Committee through the renovation and expansion of the high school, said a new middle school has been under consideration for more than 15 years but would have cost $100 million.
“I’ve heard valid comments from Pawcatuck (Middle School) parents over the years about why don’t we have this (program) or that program,” he said, adding that Pawcatuck students now will have the same opportunities as Mystic students.
“This benefits the kids first but it also benefits the taxpayers,” he said.
Sartor said the main drawback is loss of some good administrators.
Parent Ashley Gillece opposed the plan, saying “Pawcatuck kids are taking the hit on this one” with longer bus rides and not being able to walk to school.
“We’re not being listened to. We’re not being heard. Our questions are not being answered,” she charged.
She said that if the school system wants Pawcatuck students to have the same access to programs, it could invest the money to do so.
Parent Gordon Lord, who said he supports the plan, stressed to school officials as other parents did, that the school system must ensure students are not on the bus for too long.
The consolidation is being done because Riley and administrators have said a decline in enrollment, which is projected to continue, will make it increasingly difficult to offer the programs that are needed by students. It also would produce an inequity between the two schools, as the smaller Pawcatuck Middle School would not have enough staff to offer some programs that Mystic does.
While there would be almost no reduction in teaching staff, as teachers would move with students to Mystic, the consolidation would save approximately $800,000 the first year by reducing administrative, custodial and clerical positions. The savings would then continue. The influx of teachers from Pawcatuck is expected to allow the school system to offer more academic programs and extracurricular activities.
The cost to implement the consolidation — which calls for adding 50 to 60 parking spots, upgrading air conditioning, adding lunch tables and addressing other items while converting Pawcatuck Middle School into space for central office staff, special programs, the town Recreation Department and the Stonington Community Center — would cost an estimated $797,000. The town would close the current school administration building in Old Mystic and likely sell that property.
As for busing concerns, Riley wrote in an updated report this week that a study has shown that the Pawcatuck students now will be on the bus 12 to 15 minutes longer each way if they are bused to Mystic. He added that there are opportunities to reduce that time.
Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version