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Woodstock, Andover schools avoid closure, WES budget trimmed by $120K
WOODSTOCK — On Monday, January 31, the MSAD 44 School Board narrowly voted not to close the Andover Elementary School (AES). Although a majority of members voted to close the school , a super-majority of two thirds was required.
A majority of 10-6 then voted to keep Woodstock Elementary School (WES) open, provided its budget was cut by $120,000. A third vote, to close WES, was withdrawn.
About 80 residents attended the meeting. Most of those who spoke at the beginning of the meeting were in favor of keeping both schools open. Some felt that they had not been given adequate notice that school closure was being considered by the board.
Representatives from the governments of both Woodstock and Andover spoke in favor of keeping the schools open, at an added expense to local taxpayers.
Andover Selectwoman Susan Merrow chided the members, saying "We had no notice ... We feel blindsided. We had to read about it in the paper." She said "closing the school and moving the students 25 miles away is the wrong move." She then urged the board "to think of us as a whole district."
"I feel that it is in the best interest of the entire area, even though we know it will hurt, to keep the Woodstock School open," said Woodstock Town Manager Vern Maxfield. "It could hurt worse if we don't."
Andover resident Leon Akers said "little has been heard this year" from the school board and that "this vote seems rushed." He said that an extra 25 miles, each way, on the bus is a lot for younger children, and that moving them to Bethel would make it much harder for parents to attend athletic events and other school activities.
Heather O'Leary commented that"nobody will move to Woodstock or Andover if their kids have such a long bus ride." She asked how "education at Crescent Park will change with this number of kids moving in." She also reminded the board of the excellent NECAP test scores students at the threatened schools achieve, and that it would hurt the district as a whole to close the schools.
Rob Dixon, of Andover, wondered why the board had presented a multi-million dollar bond issue for a new gym "just last year" if the financial situation was so bad.
Dennis Doyen, from Bethel, suggested that the schools be combined for a year to see how it actually would affect the students.
Dave Goodwin, of Greenwood, was careful to say "This is not about education at CPS. We are knocking longer bus rides" He reminded the board that if they did vote to close the school, voters in the town where the school is located would be the ones to decide whether to fund it. "We live in Greenwood. We don't get a vote."
Speaking of WES, Jesper Kreuse, also from Greenwood, said that "the real tragedy is Jolene Littlehale and her staff have managed to create a wonderful school, with unprecedented parental involvement and virtually no behavioral issues. What they are doing there is what we should be doing everywhere."
"People are going to move out (of these towns) and the school is a big part of the community," said Fred Johnson. "We have spoken of several ways to save money and they have gone nowhere." He suggested Contractors Days at all the schools and pay-to-play sports as two examples. As to the overall budget, "Put it to the taxpayers to see if they accept it. If not, then try again. That's what we are here for. Don't throw it out."
Maxfield presented and read a letter also signed by the Woodstock Selectmen recognizing the hard financial times and the lack of money for education. He also wrote that "we (the State) have, by vote, spent ourselves into a place where there is not enough money to go around, and in order to stay afloat we must make some changes. I believe that shutting down a building that is in structurally sound condition at this time would not be a long term cost-effective measure. I think we need to pay the bills we owe and be good stewards of the properties and people that we are responsible for at this time.....We are going to be paying taxes as long as we live. The cost of running our own homes increases, so we must know that the costs of running towns and schools is going up also."
After closing the citizen comments, the board went back and forth, trying to "balance fiscal responsibility and educational responsibility," according to Andover member Keith Smith.
Woodstock representative Marcel Polak, who voted to keep AES open, said his vote was "probably not a responsible decision to keep it open, but I won't vote to close a school. I'm going to pass the buck to the taxpayers."
Roberta Taylor, of Bethel, agreed, saying "I have gone back and forth on this. I believe the taxpayers have a right to shape their schools and budget. I shouldn't stand in their way."
Woodstock member Sheryl Morgan said "I've gotten a lot of calls. I can't close the schools" By a very narrow margin, they didn't.
At the earlier School Board meeting on January 24, the board directed Superintendent David Murphy and WES Teaching Principal Jolene Littlehale, to see if they could find a way to keep Woodstock open and cut costs by $120,000.
The pair came up with a plan that will hurt the school, but also keep it open. Specifics will be up to the school, but the proposal would combine fourth and fifth grades, cutting one teacher, losing the librarian and two ed techs. While not happy about the impending loss of staff, Ms. Littlehale said "We can make this work."
Between now and June, when there will be a public hearing and vote, the board will be working on a budget.
The amount of state aid, while not yet known, will be minimal. There currently is an anticipated $1.2 million gap between the current budget and next year's anticipated costs.