Renovating Naugatuck High School and deciding whether to possibly shutter a pair of elementary schools to fill a budget gap are two totally separate issues, said Mayor Robert Mezzo.
Since the news broke Thursday about a Board of Education proposal to close both Central Avenue and schools as a way to address a looming $1.4 million budget gap, Mezzo said he has heard the feedback from residents asking why Naugatuck would do this and, at the same time, .
“I think from the parents that I’ve talked to I’ve gotten that reaction,” said Michelle Grella, president of the Parents and Educators Together group at Central Avenue Elementary School. Grella said she has been in multiple discussions with the school's parents about the closure on Thursday.
But, the mayor said these two topics aren’t the same thing. The proposed school closures — among the board’s finance subcommittee — are ways to address the looming budget gap left over from the depletion of federal stimulus money.
The high school renovation project, however, is a one-time capital expense that will be paid for over several years through bond notices. According to a debt management plan provided by Controller Wayne McAllister, Naugatuck won’t begin seeing the effects on their tax bills of that project until 2015.
But, closing the schools, is a matter having to do with the 2012-13 operating budget. Board Chairman David Heller wrote in a letter posted on Patch that the district is facing contractual increases from staff as well as rising healthcare costs.
Charlie Marenghi, a local teacher and member of the Long Term School Facility Planning Committee, described the high school project as similar to a mortgage on a home.
"If you want to put it in the homeowner’s state of mind," Marenghi said, "we’ve taken a mortgage out to pay for a house, while proposing to close schools is like cutting back to day to day expenses, like groceries, gas and vacations."
He said families may have to make cuts to their personal budgets, but ceasing payments on a mortgage isn't an option.
Marenghi, a taxpayer who has children in the school district, acknowledged it might be difficult for residents to understand the proposed cuts and the $81 million renovation project. But, he said, what's done is done and going back on that project isn't an option given the amount of work that's already been vested in it.
“Eventually, if the were able to renovate the high school, it’ll have a positive impact on the operating budget,” Superintendent Tindall-Gibson said shortly after the finance subcommittee's meeting on Wednesday.
Naugatuck currently is in the pre-construction planning stages on the high school project, after the $81 million proposal got . Because of reimbursements from the state, the borough will only be responsible for some .
Mezzo argued that the high school renovation is a bonded project wheras it’s not possible to go to a bonding house and request funds to fill a budget gap.
As for his reaction to the proposals to close both schools, Mezzo said he’d like to have all the facts before making his decision. But, he noted that there are schools in the community that will need to be repurposed at some point, as they reach the end of their lifespan as education facilities over the next 5-10 years.
“My past position, which is still my position, is if there’s choices between preserving programs and retaining educators versus closing a building... I’d always seek to keep teachers in classrooms and maintain programs that would help our children,” the mayor said.