Groton superintendent prepares to close school, lay off 70 employees

Groton — Superintendent Michael Graner said Tuesday he has begun making plans to close Pleasant Valley Elementary School and he would have to lay off at least 70 people due to budget cuts.

On Monday, the Groton Town Council voted to cut $5.2 million or 6.7 percent from the school board’s budget request for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Graner said he notified parents Tuesday via an automated phone call of the plans to close Pleasant Valley. He met with principals on Tuesday morning and held three staff meetings in the afternoon.

So far, Graner has determined how to deal with $3.7 million of the $5.2 million in cuts, he said. The district would lay off about 40 teachers, three to five administrators and 25 noncertified staff members, including secretaries, custodians and paraprofessionals. The layoffs include the staff cuts from the closure of the Pleasant Valley, he said.

Graner still must find an additional $1.5 million in cuts.

“It’s mind-boggling at this point,” he said. “We’re literally going through line by line to find anywhere that we can possibly cut with the idea that we want to protect programming for children.”

"I'm actually speechless," school board Chairwoman Kim Shepardson Watson said. "I understand that there are hard choices to be made. I get that. And I get that people don't want their taxes raised." But to cut the schools $5 million at once is unacceptable, she said.

Councilors said they were forced to cut school funding because they anticipate losing at least $5 million in state aid for education, and residents are facing a potential 15.4 percent hike in the tax rate.

Most students at Pleasant Valley would be sent to Charles Barnum Elementary School, Graner said. The district is working to free up six rooms at Charles Barnum and would move in 30 to 35 students per grade. The remaining students from Pleasant Valley would have the option to attend one of the district’s two magnet schools, Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School or Catherine Kolnaski STEM Magnet School, Graner said.

Students who aren’t accommodated at Charles Barnum or the magnet schools could be sent to S.B. Butler Elementary School, he said.

At the middle school level, Graner is looking at reorganizing to reduce faculty. The middle schools have a team structure now, which places students in groups of about 90 children, then assigns a group of teachers to teach those children their core subjects.

The premise behind having teams is that it creates a smaller school within a school; teachers can follow students more closely and collaborate more easily because all teachers in the team see the same children daily. Graner said he could cut about a dozen positions at Groton’s two middle schools by eliminating the team structure.

At the high school level, Graner said he would cut about eight positions and is working with Principal Joseph Arcarese to determine specifics. “We would have to increase class sizes in the core subjects and we would have to then look at some of the elective programs,” Graner said.

Additional cuts could affect other high school programs.

“I think we’re going to have to look at some of the extracurriculars, the athletic budget, the arts budget, the music budget, robotics. You just can’t get to $5.2 million without basically having a negative impact on all staff and all programs,” Graner said.

The Groton Parent Council and members of multiple parent-teacher organizations in the schools have approached school administrators about discussing the cuts with the Town Council.

"The town councilors really want to turn Groton into a retirement community," said Andrea Ackerman, vice chairwoman of the school board.  "For me. I'm a senior, I'm a widow, I'm virtually on a fixed income. And by keeping our taxes low, they're going to attract people like me. Not new families."

The Board of Education meets on April 17 and will receive the full plan for cuts then. Graner and the school board then would seek a meeting with the Town Council to discuss the plans. The board is scheduled to vote April 24 on closing Pleasant Valley.

“We’re trying to create a list so that everyone understands exactly what we’re doing here,” Graner said. “We want to make sure everybody’s going in with their eyes wide open.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

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