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As enrollment declines, a single high school model could be on the horizon in Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — During his tenure as superintendent, Robert Nicoletti, who held the position from 1987 to 1990, raised the idea of consolidating the town’s high schools, which was met with resistance and backlash from residents. Over a decade later, the idea was brought up again in Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s recent State of the Town address.

Town and school officials emphasized a consolidation of high schools wouldn’t happen in the near future, but said it would be something to consider if enrollment numbers continue to drop.

Enrollment at Lyman Hall and Sheehan high schools has declined steadily since 2005. During that year, Lyman Hall enrolled 1,234 students compared to 1,000 students at Sheehan. For the 2014-15 school year, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo and his staff are estimating an enrollment of 1,080 at Lyman Hall and 800 at Sheehan.

The largest decline for Lyman Hall during that period was from 2012 to 2013, when enrollment dropped from 1,132 to 1,088. For Sheehan, its largest decrease was from 907 to 879 during the same time.

“At some point, if that continues as a pattern, where we continue to have fewer and fewer students, which seems to be the case, obviously changes are going to have to be made,” Dickinson said in an interview Thursday. “We can’t afford to keep open all school buildings we do now since we have a steep decline.”

He added that mentioning consolidating the high schools during his State of the Town address last week was his way of “urging” residents and school officials to “be aware of patterns and trends and be cautious of what decisions we make.”

When he heard Dickinson’s speech, Menzo was taken aback.

“All I can say is I was surprised,” he said. “If he truly as mayor wants the Board of Education to consider it, we would do so. But at this time, we’re not planning on it.

“This is not on my agenda as a superintendent and I haven’t heard it on the agenda of any board members,” Menzo said.

He didn’t dispute the decline in student population. Since 2008, Menzo said, the school system has lost 711 students. But he emphasized this wasn’t unique to Wallingford, but rather a regional trend.

“We’re not alone. In the whole state of Connecticut, there’s been an exodus of young families in the Northeast — attributed most likely to the cost of living,” he said.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Joe Marrone said it comes down to giving the taxpayers “the best value.” The Board of Education tries to figure out ways to cut costs as creatively as possible, he said.

With enrollment numbers decreasing, Menzo said, he’s already reduced nearly nine staff positions to cut costs.

Marrone said he doesn’t believe consolidating the high schools will happen in the near future, mainly because of construction factors. The school system recently completed a roof renovation project at the high schools with the help of significant state aid, Marrone said, which meant if the town were to close down either one school or both, it would have to give the state its money back.

But Marrone also said the board would “seriously look” at consolidating the high schools if the enrollment numbers significantly dropped.

“If the student base shrinks to a certain amount, we have to look at do we need two high schools?” he said. “Is utilizing two buildings better? At the current level of student enrollment, there’s not much we can do.”

There are benefits, Nicoletti said, to having one high school, which the town had in the 1970s.

With a larger student body, there could be a larger variety of courses offered, he said. Financially, he estimated the budget would be considerably lower because the school system wouldn’t need to hire as much staff.

In Southington, a school system within Wallingford’s district reference group, the Board of Education approved an $87.07 million budget for the 2014-15 school year. During his budget presentation to the Wallingford Board of Education, Menzo recommended a $94,697,269 budget for the 2014-15 school year.

“The budget is millions of dollars less because you have an economy of scale,” Nicoletti said. “You have one athletic director and one of everything else and one set of buses.”

District reference groups are state groupings of comparable school systems based on socio-economic status and other factors.

One major consideration if Wallingford were to consolidate high schools is the district’s regional vocational agriculture program, which is run out of Lyman Hall, Dickinson said. Nicoletti agreed, adding that the presence of vo-ag facilities at one of the two schools would make consolidation to one high school “very difficult.”

If the town decides to pursue the consolidation, Nicoletti said the school system would have to put together a committee to study every aspect – from the most pressing questions like which school to close or whether to close both and building a new school, to details like determining the unified high school’s name and school colors.

“It’s a complex issue and needs a lot of study,” he said.

Town Councilor John LeTourneau, a Republican, said he couldn’t say whether he supported the idea of consolidating the high schools without seeing more data. But Town Councilor John Sullivan, a Democrat, said it would make sense to consolidate from a “business side.”

“I’m no expert, but as we see declining numbers, it costs a lot of money to support both high schools in town,” he said.

Like Dickinson, Sullivan said consolidation might be something to look at down the road if enrollment continues to drop.

While Nicoletti experienced negative backlash when he raised the idea, Dickinson said he doesn’t believe there would be a similar reaction this time.

“If we have a continuing trend where we have 2,000 fewer students, I don’t know if there would be a huge backlash,” he said. “With 7,000 students to 5,000 students or fewer, I think people would expect some change be made. It all depends on what the facts are.

“I just ask everyone to look at all the facts,” Dickinson said, “and to keep all things in mind when looking at changes.”

evo@record-journal.com (203) 317-2235 Twitter: @EricVoRJ



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