Salem School Renovations Debated at Forum
Possibilities for renovations at Fisk, Haigh and Soule Elementary Schools discussed.
The Salem School Board heard impassioned testimony from many residents Tuesday night at a forum on the future of Salem elementary school renovations.
Many were parents of elementary-aged students who fear a day in the near future when the number of neighborhood schools in town will be reduced based on projected enrollments showing a decline.
Some expressed concern about the district's potential willingness to close Haigh if enrollments continue to lag.
School Board Secretary Peter Morgan said the board was hoping to get input from the community on how best to put forward a plan that will be approved by the voters.
SAU 57 Superintendent Michael Delahanty explained to the nearly 150 people in the audience at Salem High School that an enrollment projections study commissioned by the district shows a continued precipitous decline in enrollments over the next 10 years, continuing a trend that started in 2000.
The district enrolls 1,653 students in kindergarten through Grade 5 currently. Projections indicate that number will drop by 169 students in 2014-2015, by 236 in 2015-2016 and by 300 in 2016-2017.
"It's clear from the enrollment projections we won't need six elementary schools by that time," said Delahanty.
Based on current estimates, closing Haigh would save the district $900,000 annually in operating costs and not doing a full renovation of the school would save $3.2 million over the life of a 20-year bond, according to Delahanty.
Delahanty and members of the school board reiterated several times during the two-and-a-half hour forum that there's no current plan to close Haigh.
But Delahanty questioned whether it made "prudent sense" to operate Haigh if it's not needed in the future.
Resident Rich Wilson said he believed the school enrollment study has "significant flaws," and didn't take into account several important factors like private kindergarten enrollments in town.
Wilson also felt "in no uncertain terms" the Haigh community as a group would not support any plan that does not include their school in the renovations.
Dave Barrett, a Haigh parent, said renovating schools is one factor that would drive more young families to move to Salem in the future.
"We're going to have a surplus of housing and that's not going to be purchased by the elderly who are looking to downsize," Barrett said.
Sherry Kilgus-Kramer, the president of local school advocacy group Strengthen Our Schools, said her group has supported and continues to support the renovation of all elementary schools in Salem.
"Enrollment projections are uncertain," Kilgus-Kramer said. If enrollments go back up and Haigh is closed and not renovated, she said it could be "a catastrophe to not be prepared for that scenario."
Resident Jeff Hatch, who no longer has children in the school system, took issue with what Wilson said previously about the lack of support from the Haigh community if Haigh is not part of the plan.
"That turned people like me off," Hatch said.
Several who spoke wanted to see the emphasis perhaps put more on needed renovations at Salem High School. Current junior Nick Fosman actually produced a piece of wall tile that had fallen off at the school.
"Our school is literally falling apart," Fosman said. "We need to do something about it."
"This school doesn't need to be renovated," Hatch said. "It needs to be torn down."
To further illustrate Fosman's point, a mouse running around the floor of Seifert Auditorium caused a stir and interrupted a later speaker's comments.
School Board Chair Pamela Berry said the high school will be the next in the renovations master plan and that planning and design for renovations will take two years to complete.
Near the end of the forum, a plan was discussed where Fisk and Soule would be renovated at their full level while Haigh would received a modified, reduced renovation at a cost of about $2.3 million.
Under this, Delahanty said Haigh would be renovated so that it could be "a viable municipal asset to the community."