Adams-Cheshire School Committee votes 4-3 to close Cheshire Elementary

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CHESHIRE — Cheshire Elementary will be closed.

Voting four to three along town lines, the Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee voted on Tuesday to keep C.T. Plunkett Elementary in Adams open and shutter Cheshire Elementary School next year.

The three representatives from Cheshire — Darlene Rodowicz, Peter Tatro, and Edmund St. John IV — voted against the plan, but all four Adams representatives endorsed it — Paul Butler, Stephen Vigna, Regina Hill, and Jennifer Gageant. It passed with a simple majority.

Cheshire representatives argued that its school was more financially sustainable, while Adams representatives focused on the superior space C.T. Plunkett would provide.

"The environment in which a student learns plays just as important a role to the overall educational experience," Vigna said.

Adams Cheshire will become prekindergarten through third grade in C.T. Plunkett, while is expected to hold about 425 students under the reconfiguration plan.

The fourth and fifth grades will join the middle school wing of Hoosac Valley Middle and High School.

The school committee had initially expected to vote on the closure at its meeting on March 2, but was presented that day with new budget information that it decided to digest before making a final decision.

The choice, which carries a significant fiscal impact, had to be made on Thursday to provide enough time for district officials to finalize the fiscal 2018 budget before the committee votes on it next week.

Facing yet another budget shortfall to maintain services, the district opted to pursue a school closure this year.

Consolidating elementary schools was one of several options laid out by the Collins Center earlier this year after it conducted a months-long review, commissioned by the district last year, of the district's structure and finance.

Over the past several weeks, the school committee has weighed the financial benefits of maintaining Cheshire Elementary against the space C.T. Plunkett would provide the student population.

With C.T. Plunkett closed, the district had estimated that it could generate about $100,000 additional revenue every year from state transportation reimbursement. The move would require busing the majority of the district's elementary students from Adams to Cheshire — a trip greater than the state's 1.5-mile threshold for increased transportation reimbursement.

But on Thursday, Superintendent Robert Putnam revised his estimates on transportation reimbursement, closing the gap between Cheshire and C.T. Plunkett to about $60,000 per year but still resulting in more than $200,000 in savings in a five-year span.

Though closing either school would result in savings to the district, altogether closing C.T. Plunkett would result in $462,000 more in savings than closing Cheshire over the next five years, according to Putnam.

The district has found itself in a yearly routine of flat state aid and increasing costs, leaving the taxpayers of its two towns to pay the difference. The district has cut staff in four consecutive years, according to Putnam.

Putnam has proposed not only maintaining the current staffing, but adding five positions that were recommended by the Collins Center. The positions, which include special education staff and math and reading coaches, could help the district save money in the longterm by reducing the number of students who require costly special education services.

"I think it's important to maintain what we have, to stop the erosion," Putnam said.

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On Thursday, Putnam presented thee choices: keeping both schools open, closing Cheshire Elementary, or closing C.T. Plunkett. Each resulted substantial increases in town contributions to the district, but closing C.T. Plunkett resulted in the smallest increase to the overall budget.

But in response to a request from the school committee, Putnam also presented all three choices adjusted to keep increases to about three percent for each town but required cuts to programming and staff.

The space constraints at Cheshire Elementary were also a factor in the school committee's decision-making process. C.T. Plunkett could fit the combined elementary schools with ease, but Cheshire would need to divide several of its larger spaces and have no additional capacity if enrollment increased.

The school committee also had to assess the potential capital needs of each building. C.T. Plunkett was more recently renovated, in 1994, but persistent issues with its boiler room roof were cause for concern.

On Thursday, officials in the town of Adams committed to paying for the capital costs of a lift at C.T. Plunkett and repairs one of its stairways that, combined, are estimated to cost $48,000. They will also assume any liability for the boiler room roof, all outside of the district's budget.

Vigna, an Adams resident, expressed concern about the impact stretching Cheshire to its capacity would have on education. Hill, a fellow committee member from Adams, said the decision is "not just a monetary one."

"I believe we must take into account all factors. Education, space, accessibility, services, the impact to our communities, and most important, what is truly best for our children," Hill said.

St. John argued that the district needs "financial security."

"My fear is that closing Cheshire school does not put resources back into the classroom," St. John said.

Echoing the sentiment, Rodowicz said that because teachers could teach in either building, the decision came down to dollars — the lack of which is forcing the district to have to close a school.

"Unfortunately a lot of times in life, dollars do drive decisions," Rodowicz said.

The School Committee held several weeks of public meetings on the issue, including forums for public input at C.T. Plunkett and Cheshire Elementary last month.

Throughout the meetings, Adams residents and town officials warned of the negative economic impact closing a downtown elementary school and the chilling effect it could have on the real estate market there.

Cheshire residents and officials have contended that their elementary school is in good shape and the more fiscally prudent option. The school is also a source of community identity, several pointed out.

John Tremblay, a Cheshire resident, discussed the possibility that neither elementary school might be a long-term solution.

"This feels a little bit like a band-aid, that there's a long-term that we've got to look at," Tremblay said.

Butler acknowledged that the best solution may be single campus at Hoosac Valley, but noted that a building project will take years.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks


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