Officials forge on with Groton school closure

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2008

Despite bitter opposition from many parents, Groton school officials are moving ahead with closing the Colonel William Prescott Elementary School, arguing the step is needed to help bridge an estimated $583,808 spending gap the district is facing next fiscal year.

With a crowd of chagrined parents in the audience last Wednesday, the School Committee voted to support Superintendent Alan Genovese's recommendation to reassign Prescott students to other classrooms, emptied by declining enrollments across the district. Genovese plans to keep the building open, perhaps as an administrative area, but the historic building, a 1927 structure that originally served as the town's high school, will no longer be used as a school starting next fall.

Parents at the Prescott School have launched a vigorous campaign to keep the school open and even rallied a citizen's petition to that end, garnering hundreds of signatures in support of keeping the school open, said Jeanne Niemoller, a Prescott parent whose son will graduate from the school this spring.

Niemoller, a former School Committee member, said closing the school as an educational building was done in an overly hasty fashion by school officials and violates the School Committee's policy, which calls for extensive research prior to retiring a school building.

Prescott School staff have also piloted an innovative reading program, which helped buoy students' MCAS scores considerably, she said.

"This was a very big deal to carry something like this out," said Niemoller, who says Prescott parents are seeking Genovese's resignation. "It wasn't an underperforming school."

"I'm fearful for this district and what will continue to happen," she added.

School Committee chairwoman Cynthia Barrett said school officials have been tied up with a state educational quality audit, which prevented the administration from acting earlier in the fall on the issue of closing the school. Some Committee members disagree, but Barrett does not believe the closure violates the committee's policy, because the building is not technically being retired but remaining open in a noneducational capacity.

The decision to close the building is attributed to the district's looming fiscal problems and a $583,808 spending deficit the committee needs to surmount in order to balance the budget for next fiscal year, starting July 1, Barrett said. Under the plan, Prescott's 225 students would attend either Florence Roche Elementary School in Groton or Swallow Union Elementary School in Dunstable, and Genovese needs time to notify parents which students will go where, she said.

Barrett said closing the school would allow school officials to cut Prescott's library and custodial staff from the district's budget, saving an estimated $320,000.

"Prescott is a wonderful school," she said. "It has a unique culture that everyone can appreciate. But, with the available space in Swallow Union and Florence Roche, it's not fiscally responsible to keep all three elementary schools running."

By closing the school, Prescott students are losing their educational environment, but that's a second priority to cutting teachers, which will happen if the School Committee does not come up with ways of trimming the spending deficit, Barrett said.

"We are saving jobs and helping to preserve the people, which is the most important part of the equation," she said.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi Guarino said student populations are declining slightly across the state but not dramatically. In some cases, she said, it is prompting officials in some districts to close schools in order to economize space, as in Groton. Other recent school closings to save space and money include Swampscott's Machon Elementary School and the Kelley Elementary School in Newburyport.

Guarino said the closings make fiscal sense for some communities combating ever-rising property taxes.

"It's better to have one school full than it is to have two schools open with vacant classrooms," she said. "It kind of goes with the ebb and flow of student populations."

But Niemoller thinks school officials need to be more creative in their thinking. She floated the idea of making Swallow Union Elementary School a kindergarten through eighth-grade school for Dunstable students, a move that would help reduce busing costs to the district's middle school in Groton. Barrett said she didn't think the idea would work because Swallow/Union is not set up for middle school students.

"They could possibly save a half-million [dollars] a year that way," Niemoller said. "That would be a macroscopic way of looking at the budget."

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