WALLINGFORD — In 1983, state Rep. Mary Fritz was serving on the Board of Education when the board voted to close Parker Farms School to save $160,000.
Soon after, Fritz was at a local church and a woman approached her. “Mary, we’re praying for you,” she said.
Despite the backlash from residents and the controversy that ensued, Fritz has no regrets.
“It’s not always easy making those decisions,” she said. “You do what you find is best.”
The town closed and reopened Parker Farms and Yalesville schools in the 1980s and 1990s because of concerns about enrollment and education funding. During the same period, a proposal to consolidate the two high schools at Lyman Hall set off another public furor.
Even though more than 30 years has passed since the vote to close Parker Farms, the idea of closing a school seems to reopen old wounds for some. In a speech last month, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said the town may have to consider consolidating into one high school if enrollment trends continue. After the speech, school officials said they had no idea the mayor planned to mention consolidation publicly and added that even their long-range plans don’t call for closing a high school.
The Board of Education agreed to close a west side elementary school in 1983 to make up for a $160,000 cut in the school budget. The board considered Yalesville, Parker Farms, Highland and Cook Hill schools.
According to a May 25, 1983, Record-Journal article, the Board of Education’s Finance Committee voted to close Parker Farms over nearby Yalesville school because it would yield more savings. Closing Parker Farms would mean a “$182,508 net savings in school operating costs in the 1983-84 budget,” the article states. Closing Yalesville would yield a $178,197 savings. Parker Farms students would be transferred to the other three west side elementary schools.
At the time, Parker Farms had 20 classrooms and 201 students. Yalesville had 13 classrooms and 236 students. Since Parker Farms had more classrooms, the school superintendent and other top administrators advised the board to close Yalesville.
Parents opposing the closing came out to board meetings to ask the board to reconsider. Over 150 Parker Farms students attended the meeting when the board voted to close their school. About 80 parents attended a PTA meeting to protest.
Town historian Bob Beaumont said he feels closing schools tends to upset adults more than children.
“The older we get the more we are set in our ways,” Beaumont said.
Dickinson was new to office when Parker Farms was closed.
“People were obviously upset by it and that is kind of the dynamic with neighborhood schools,” he said. “People like the idea that their child can go to school they can walk to.”
In 1986, then-School Superintendent Frank Soldan recommended closing Yalesville school and reopening Parker Farms because enrollment was increasing and the elementary schools were becoming overcrowded.
Parker Farms was selected because it was better located to alleviate overcrowding at both Moses Y. Beach and Cook Hill schools. Reopening Parker Farms was estimated to cost $1.5 million. Some expressed dismay that the town was spending more than a million dollars to open a school that it had decided to close a few years earlier.
“It had to be brought up to code. A lot of things changed and I don’t know if they anticipated bringing everything up to code,” said Town Councilor Robert Parisi.
In May 1986, the Board of Education voted to close Yalesville School and reopen Parker Farms.
In 1987, the board discovered reopening Parker Farms would be delayed because of construction, which meant redistricting to ease overcrowding would also have to wait. The total cost of reopening Parker Farms, closing Yalesville and transferring students was estimated at $2.2 million.
In March 1989, a committee of Town Council and Board of Education members, parents and other residents was created to address continuing overcrowding in the town’s seven elementary schools. In August, the committee recommended reopening Yalesville or building additions to three other schools.
In 1992, with enrollment continuing to climb, the Board of Education recommended reopening Yalesville school and adding 10 classrooms. Nine classrooms would be added to the other schools. Fourteen classrooms and a larger cafeteria would be built at the town’s middle schools. In total, the project cost the town $13.5 million. In 1996, Yalesville school reopened.
In the midst of the controversy over the elementary schools, then-School Superintendent Robert Nicoletti suggested keeping Lyman Hall High School open and converting Sheehan High School into a middle school because of enrollment figures. West side high school students would attend Lyman Hall.
Nicoletti wanted the Board of Education to move the fourth and fifth grades into the middle schools, and move grades seven and eight into Sheehan, according to a June 3, 1988, Record-Journal article.
When the idea was met with fierce resistance, Nicoletti and the Board of Education came up with other options to ease overcrowding.
“(Nicoletti) got ragged all over the place on that,” Beaumont said. “I don’t know if it was really a bad suggestion ... but Bob got hammered on that. It was a legitimate consideration, but he got hammered all over the place.”
Parisi recalled a meeting shortly after Nicoletti’s plan to move all high school students into Lyman Hall was made public.
“It was east against west,” Parisi said. “The auditorium was jam packed with people ... it was like combat.
“Our high schools are almost sacred,” he added. “There’s such deep traditions ... It’s very, very sensitive ground. We better walk very cautiously if we go through that.”
Fritz said that, in the end, Parker Farms and Yalesville students were better off because both schools were renovated.
“It was a tumultuous time,” Fritz said, “but in the end, it was a very happy time, too. In the end, everyone got served.”