Parents voiced their frustrations Tuesday during a Salem School Board forum that provided sporadic answers and plenty of speculation on the future of Walter F. Haigh Elementary School.
Over 50 residents crowded into rows of folding chairs in the Haigh School multipurpose room, and many of them believed that their school has not received a fair shake when stacked up with the town’s five other elementary schools.
Haigh School was part of two warrant articles in March. Voters approved one article, which called for modest improvements to the school alongside major renovations to both the Fisk and Soule Schools. A second article called for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) improvements to the facility. Salem residents narrowly knocked down that article.
Haigh School parent Amy Daley called out the board for their decision to single out the HVAC improvements in a separate article.
“When those (warrant) articles were split, it was devastating to this group of people to see that split,” she said. “These kids matter, this school matters.”
Board member Pamela Berry, who served as chairman before the March vote, told the parents in attendance that if she knew how the vote would have turned out, she might not have supported the packages that the board put together.
“I’m just one board member and I’ll say – we obviously let you down,” Berry told the parents.
But board members Michael Carney, Jr., Peter Morgan and Bernard Campbell, Jr. all stood by the decision to split the two articles.
Morgan said that he is convinced that the reason Article 2 passed was because the HVAC improvements were split from the article.
Carney and Campbell both noted that the board decision was in the best interest not just of Haigh School, but of the whole district.
Carney also clarified that redistricting likely would have occurred whether six schools, three schools or no schools were renovated.
Vice Chairman Patricia Corbett told the residents in attendance that the forum was about mending fences with the parents.
“The board truly cares about you and your children. I’ve said this in many public forums – these decisions that we’ve made up until now have been the hardest that we’ve ever made.”
Many parents came out to get further clarification on the school’s possible closure. Campbell said up front with near certainty – the school will be open this fall pending some catastrophic damage to the building.
“There is no date certain that an action to close this school or any other school will occur,” said Campbell.
Campbell explained that the board looks at enrollment numbers each year, which are declining in Salem and will continue to decline based on a district study recently commissioned.
He said that any decision to realign the district facilities will depend on how many open classrooms are in the rest of the district at a given point of time, and how those facilities can best be used.
A timeline relative to closure would be at least 14 to 15 months due to planning and budgeting, he said.
Superintendent Michael Delahanty said that should a closure happen, it would likely be a hard close because resources would be diminished for the students that would remain as the result of a soft close.
On class sizes, Delahanty gave the example of the second grade classrooms at Haigh School, explaining that the ideal realignment in the event of a school closure would maintain class sizes at 16 or 17.
But as Haigh School remains open, many parents are upset with a negative cloud that has formed around the aging facility.
Laurie Carmichael said that as Salem’s other five schools are being renovated, the Haigh School community looks like it is on the bad side of town.
Melissa Santos, who will soon have a daughter in the district, said that despite the negativity surrounding Haigh School, she has heard nothing but good things about the people involved with the school.
“I talk to a lot of people in the community. I talk to my daughter’s preschool teachers. They talk about what an awesome community this school really is. I get that feeling when I am here.”
Joseph Brito, a 12-year Salem resident, spoke of his daughter, who went from the little girl who used to be attached to his leg to the brave first grade student dancing on stage in the school’s variety show.
“What I need from you, I need you to show my little girl, my boys, that you love the Haigh,” Brito told the district leadership. “You say it, but I want to see it. I want to feel it.”
Delahanty told parents that when the rest of Salem’s elementary schools are renovated, the only resource that Haigh School will have less of is space.
“We’re interested in maintaining the quality of the school,” he said “At some point down the road there may be a need to close this school, just based on economics. We’re here to say – this is as viable a school, as important a school, as any other school in the district.”
One resident also raised the issue of Haigh School’s playground, which saw its equipment destroyed in a suspected arson case in August.
Delahanty said that there is possibly money available to go toward the playground, which could combine with both fund-raising already done and a modest insurance settlement.