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Region 7: Norfolk, Colebrook revisit consolidation

The school budget is $2.4 milion. This year there are 64 students at Botelle, next year there will be 56 students. — Matt Riiska, Norfolk First Selectman

NORFOLK — Faced with a diminishing student population, Norfolk town officials are once again looking into the consolidation of Norfolk and Colebrook schools.

“This comes to light every year at budget time. The school budget is $2.4 million. This year there are 64 students at Botelle, next year there will be 56 students,” Norfolk First Selectman Matt Riiska said.

“Currently, Botelle has four combined classes from pre-K to 6th grade. If you have a class size of six, how much social interaction are you having? It’s an issue across the board. There’s been a lot of discussion about combining classes, and if that’s the best teaching method. There are a lot of negative comments about it, but it obviously serves a purpose.”

Riiska met recently with  Mike Sconyers and Nina Ritson from the Board of Finance, Virginia Coleman from the Board of Education, and two attorneys from the state Department of Education to discuss how consolidation might work.

“There are multiple ways. One is a cooperative agreement between Colebrook and Norfolk, which is regulated by state statute 10-158a, an agreement between Norfolk and Colebrook’s Board of Ed, in which they’d say we’d like you to come up with a figure to send kids to Colebrook on a tuition basis, paid through local taxes. We’d still retain some status with the Board of Ed, so there’d be some oversight with Norfolk Board of Education.

“The second option is a consolidation between Colebrook and Norfolk. That’s a longer process with a lot of paperwork with the Department of Education. There’s a lot to hash out because you’re combining two schools. Colebrook voted it down eight years ago.”

“Then it would be a question of which school site would better serve the students. Obviously both towns would like to retain both schools. Norfolk’s is in very good condition.”

“In the first agreement, we’d be sending students to Colebrook, but with the cooperative agreement, we could have students from North Canaan or even Winsted. I’m not sure how that’d work; we’d have to come up with tuition.”

Board of Education member Ann DeCerbo said, “The focus of the Norfolk Board of Ed is the quality of education for our students. Our board constantly considers and evaluates real-world solutions – including but not limited to consolidation.  It is important to note, though, that consolidation doesn’t solve the educational, social, and financial issues facing Norfolk.  It does feel clear, however, that not having a home-town school would not be helpful for attracting families to our town.”

“Cooperation with Colebrook is not something new. Botelle already cooperates with Colebook on a regular basis through combined field trips, cultural and social programming, professional development, and in a myriad of other informal collaborative ways,” she added.

Board of Education member John DeShazo said “We are looking into ways to make Botelle thrive, given what we have the power to do as a board.  One idea that was raised at our last board meeting, which can be viewed online, is augmenting our existing curriculum with an after school program that could offer students more specific, deeper learning in STEM subjects and the arts.  We already have a maker space and we have had EdAdvance facilitate Personal Interest Projects (PIPS) at Botelle, and we are looking into ways to expand those programs.

“The board’s focus is on making the education at Botelle the best education that we can provide.  We are all stakeholders in the school.  We should all be working to do what we can to make Botelle an outstanding school.”

Asked further about financing the additional cost per student, Riiska said “Mike Sconyers and I were just at the Regional 7 Board of Education meeting. Their per pupil cost is about $25,500. You’d work that out through funds raised through taxes just like our regular Board of Education budget and we’d still have to maintain our school as a town.”

One critical factor is that the school population has dropped drastically. At one time Botelle had 250 students.

“Thirty years ago when my daughter was there, there were 140 kids. Part of that is the cost of homes and rentals. We have a huge issue with lack of affordable inventory. It’s all connected, you can’t talk about one thing without the other,” Riiska said.

Quality jobs are also a factor in attracting families with children to Norfolk. “There are jobs out there but how well they pay is another question,” Riiska says.

Currently, the prospect of further consolidation is still tentative and nothing has  been decided.

The Board of Education will meet again next week, and the discussion will continue. Critical questions regarding costs, best use of funds, and working with a tight budget remain in play. “It’s a long discussion; there’s no magic wand,” Riiska said.

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