FAIRFIELD — A crowd of parents, community members and children congregated around Sherman Green on Saturday to protest a feared closure of Dwight Elementary School as part of a larger plan to redistrict the elementary schools, despite assurances from the administration that no decisions have yet been made.
At a finance committee meeting on September 7, members of the committee discussed what it would mean for the budget if Dwight Elementary School were to close. Johnna Lyn Hoffman, president of the PTA at Dwight, said she and David Krasnoff, the Board of Education representative from Dwight’s PTA, were taken aback.
“Obviously we were like, ‘Wait, what?’ We had never heard of that,” she said.
According to the meeting minutes, Christine Vitale, the Board of Education chair, told committee members that while they were using Dwight as an example, it was meant as a placeholder for any of the district’s elementary schools. She also emphasized that the district had not made any decisions about the redistricting plan
But Hoffman said she came away with a different impression.
“After we left that meeting, we obviously felt like this was something that was very strongly being considered,” she said.
In May, the state of Connecticut told the Fairfield School District that it needed to submit a plan to the state to address a racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School, where over half of the students are racial minorities compared to 26 percent of the district’s overall student population. Part of the plan, which Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy presented to the Board of Education in July, involves creating a redistricting plan for the elementary schools, which is scheduled to be completed in January 2024.
Tracy also told the obard in July that the district’s schools needed to be redistricted because the number of students slated for the schools didn’t always match the size of the school buildings. Five of the elementary schools are currently above 85 percent capacity, and five are below 75 percent capacity, according to a presentation Tracy gave to the Board.
Interim Superintendent Charles Tracy told CT Examiner in a call earlier this month that the district still has to receive approval from the state Board of Education for its plan. The district has a meeting scheduled with the state for November 2.
Once the district receives that approval, Tracy said, they have to decide two things. The first is whether or not any of the schools need to be closed at all. The second would be which school, if any, would end up closed.
“I know people are anxious about it and people are having meetings and speaking up, but no decision has been made as to even whether to close a school, let alone which one,” Tracy said.
Tracy said that the choice of Dwight in particular at the finance committee meeting, was due to the fact that Dwight, like Jennings, is one of the smaller schools in the district. He also pointed out that Dwight is in need of extensive renovations that will cost around $50 million – a very rough estimate, Tracy said, based on a walk through by some facilities experts.
“But again, the fact that a very rough estimate has been made, it in no way implies that that school or the other school is going to be replaced or closed or anything like that. We’re months away from even discussing that sort of thing,” said Tracy.
Parents who gathered on Saturday at Sherman Green, many wearing green t-shirts and carrying signs that said things like “Save Dwight, Stop Overcrowding” and “Fight for Dwight,” told CT Examiner that they were afraid the school’s closure would mean overcrowding at other elementary schools in the area.
“We do this, we’re going to have a problem in two, three years time,” said parent Lauren Neubauer, who has a 2nd and a 5th grader at Dwight. She said she felt the district was not being transparent with the parents.
“At the end of the day, the result is going to be overcrowding,” said parent Mike Masci, who has a first grader at Dwight. Masci and other parents expressed skepticism at the district’s enrollment projections, saying they didn’t believe the projections accurately reflected the number of families that moved into the area during the COVID pandemic.
In June 2022, the demographic firm SLAM predicted an increase in elementary school students of about 5.7 percent, or 226 students, over the next five years, and an increase of about 9.2 percent over the next 10 years. This would place the elementary school enrollment at about 4,330 students in 10 years —- an increase of about 360 students from last year, although still below the 4,415 students enrolled five years ago and about 4,750 students enrolled a decade ago.
Not all the district schools will feel that increase evenly. Dwight is expected to decline to 244 students in the year 2024-25, placing it at 65 percent capacity, or the lowest capacity of all the elementary schools, according to the recent amendment to the district’s racial imbalance plan.
Tracy said the Board of Education would most likely ask SLAM to update their projections before continuing with the redistricting projects.
Katie Flynn, president of the Fairfield PTAC, told the crowd at the gathering on Saturday that the district should be investing in staff and students as well as infrastructure improvements rather than talking about closing schools.
“We really feel this is not a one-school issue, it’s an all-schools issue,” Flynn told CT Examiner.
Other parents said that they had moved to the district specifically because of the schools, and they didn’t want to see changes that would have negative effects on their children.
“We bought our house because Dwight was close,” said parent Marcela Del Razo, who has a 4th grader at Dwight. She said she worried her home might decrease in value if the school were to close.
Another parent, who gave only her first name, Sabina, told CT Examiner that a local school created a neighborhood feeling, allowing children to play on the same team and making it easy to have playdates. She said she was concerned it would increase the length of her child’s bus rides to school.
Several parents also said they felt closing Dwight would add on another disruption after several tumultuous years of trying to learn during COVID.
“It’s really just not a good time on their part to be closing to school after coming out of a two and a half year pandemic, when the kids have already been severely impacted mentally and socially and their abilities to learn properly in the classroom have been affected,” said Hoffman.
Former and current students at Dwight told CT Examiner they wanted to see the school remain open.
11-year-old Adele, a 6th grader who went to Dwight, said the school helped her when she moved with her family from New York City a few years ago.
“It was a welcoming school, and I’m all for saving it, too,” she said.
Langley, a 2nd grader at Dwight, said she likes the staff at her school, and the energy that people have when they walk through the door.
“I just don’t want it to shut down, I think it should stay open,” she said.
This story has been edited to correct the name of interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy