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Montville officials say declining enrollment talks could soon include possible school closing

Montville — This week, more than 960 students will start their second week of classes at one of Montville’s three elementary schools.

Each of them — Murphy, Oakdale and Mohegan — have been sorted into classes of about 15 students each and, after some last-minute adjustments, all fit into the three schools without too much elbow room or crowding.

But Montville school officials are starting to anticipate a future when there might not be enough students in Montville to fill all three schools, and say that this is the year they’re going to start taking that possibility seriously.

“I fully expect that this fall it will be a conversation that we will begin to have,” Superintendent Brian Levesque said.

The town and school board have thus far avoided a conversation that gets too far into specifics about when the district will have to confront a declining school population.

The town has closed schools before.

In the 1990s, the town went from five to three elementary schools when the Fair Oaks School and Palmer Memorial School were both re-purposed and students were shuffled into three newly renovated elementary schools and a new middle school.

A decade earlier, in 1983, after a steady decrease in the district's population, the school board voted to close the former Uncasville School, which would later be re-purposed as a new Town Hall building.

Only 76 students would have enrolled the next year if the school remained open, school officials argued then.

"Efficiency means improved instruction," said Leonard J. Tyl, the district's superintendent at the time.

Maintaining three elementary schools in 2016 is not necessarily inefficient, according to Levesque.

He said the total number of elementary students that were enrolled by the first day of school last week was actually seven more than district officials anticipated.

"We never know how many are going to show up at each school," he said.

This year, there was a higher concentration of kindergarten students at Oakdale — 57 students are there this year — so Levesque added a kindergarten class, which allowed the district to add a class and hire back a teacher whose contract had been terminated.

But in the long term, Levesque said district officials can see that something will have to change.

When the board decided to close the Uncasville School in 1983, the district's elementary school population was about 1,480 students.

This year, Levesque said, 956 elementary school students started school on Aug. 31.

He predicts that by 2020, slightly more than 2,000 total students will be in public schools in Montville.

Numbers like that mean there won't be enough students to keep classes at the board-recommended size of 15 students.

That problem won't necessarily be solved with one less school, Levesque said.

"The solution could be a whole bunch of solutions," he said, including consolidating grades within one school or adjusting the number of classes.

Board of Education Chairman Robert Mitchell said the board plans to approach the topic cautiously. The school board has not yet had a serious discussion.

"We're going to look at what our options are," he said. "We don’t do anything prematurely."

But if the board doesn't start taking the probability of declining enrollment seriously in the next few years, he said, "really we would not be doing our due diligence."

School closings are never popular, and the idea already has generated some anxiety among parents.

"The kids wouldn’t care," Mitchell said. "It's mainly the nostalgia factor, the attachment that the group in that area has for that school."

Colleen Rix, one of the school board's newest members and a Montville schools parent, said she sympathizes with that feeling.

"Any parent doesn't want to see the elementary school where their kids go close," she said. "They feel a relationship with it, and they love it."

Rix said she remembers when the Fair Oaks and Palmer elementary schools closed.

"Of course people didn’t like it back then," she said.

But, she said, it could be a necessarily measure in a district that is following regional trends and seeing its school population and birth rates decrease each year.

Magnet and private schools also are becoming more popular with Montville students each year, she said.

"It's not going to be something that’s going to be happening overnight," Rix said. "But it's something that's absolutely going to have to get looked into."

m.shanahan@theday.com 

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