The school district that serves the Old Town area could effectively close its small elementary school in Bradley as it stares down hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential budget gaps in the coming years.
Those anticipated gaps in Regional School Unit 34 stem from declining enrollment, the coming end of federal COVID relief funds that the district has used to fund new positions and a return to some pre-pandemic funding provisions that will affect how much state aid the 1,400-student school system receives.
Under a plan district administrators will present to the school board on Wednesday, students in kindergarten through third grade at Viola Rand Elementary School would move to Old Town Elementary School while Viola Rand would host pre-K students both from its existing population and Old Town Elementary School.
The savings would come from a staff reduction as a result of the move, according to Superintendent Matthew Cyr.
The “sky is not falling” on RSU 34, Cyr told parents at a meeting Monday night. But the district needs to start some difficult conversations about how to navigate the inevitable budget gaps expected in the next few years, he said.
“It’s not an easy conversation, but we have to have it so that we’re not caught in two years where all this is stacked up and we have no other options but to make some drastic moves,” Cyr said. “We want to be very strategic, and we want to be very intentional in how we proceed through this.”
RSU 34 has seen a significant enrollment decline in recent years, particularly in the lower grades, and that directly affects how much state funding the district receives.
The school system this year has 508 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade across its three elementary schools, with 74 students at Viola Rand, Cyr said. That’s fewer than the 579 students Old Town Elementary School alone had in 2018.
“The first thing you know, honestly, that was glaring to us, was that we’ve had a pretty significant drop in enrollment, particularly at the elementary level as a district, over the last four years,” Cyr said.
If Viola Rand students moved to Old Town Elementary, the school would be able to keep class sizes to, at most, 22 students, Assistant Superintendent Jon Doty said.
In addition to a financial hit from declining enrollment, RSU 34 expects a $452,000 budget gap as elements of the state funding formula that changed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide some relief for school districts revert to their pre-pandemic form.
Compounding those changes are $750,000 in positions funded by federal COVID-19 relief funds, which the district will either have to absorb into its budget or eliminate, Cyr said.
Those positions include critical support staff who are helping students recover from pandemic disruptions, including literacy and math interventionists, Doty said.
Parents in attendance at Old Town High School on Monday night objected to the plan to move most students out of Viola Rand, with some extolling the value of their children’s small class sizes at the school.
While Cyr and Doty will present the plan to RSU 34’s school board Wednesday night, the plan will not be up for a vote, Cyr said. Instead, the board will be able to offer feedback and suggestions for how to proceed before formally making a recommendation.
“It is not a simple path for us to navigate,” Cyr told parents. “We don’t believe this is a perfect plan, we never did, but we have to start somewhere.”