Bridgeport Schools team up to fight merger
BRIDGEPORT — In a second grade class at Hall School, a Friday morning spelling test is under way and the only sound is teacher Delores Pearce calling out words, most with the double “o” sound.
In kindergarten, students practice a safety drill that involves piling into the classroom’s built-in wooden closet so tightly that the teacher can pull down a solid curtain to hide them.
And in the school’s 105-year-old auditorium with its brand-new $10,000 grant-funded sound system, a cast of 22 “upperclassmen” belts out the songs from Aladdin, the school’s spring musical. It is mid-morning, but the audience is packed with classmates, parents and visitors from Bridgeport Hospital who regularly volunteer at the school.
“Just like Broadway,” Principal Cynthia Fernandes calls out.
Along with the joy there is tenseness. A note on the door warns parents to attend a Monday school board meeting which could seal the fate of their school.
Faced with making more than $10 million in budget cuts, the board is considering closing Hall School and merging it into Edison School. Doing so would reportedly cut 16 positions and save $1.1 million.
A decision could come as soon as Monday, when the board meets at 6:30 p.m. at the Aquaculture School, 60 St. Stephens Road.
Hall and Edison, both serving kindergarten through sixth graders, are only a half mile apart but are separated by the busy Boston Avenue in the city’s East End.
Neither school is happy about the idea of merging.
“You don’t disrupt family,” Vanessa Maldonado, an Edison parent leader, said. “I understand cuts need to be made. I get it. But there are other cuts that need to be made and I can pull them out for you.”
Deolinda Fragoso, a parent leader at Hall School said closing a school her kids can walk to makes no sense.
“A tax break but no money to fund schools? We need to get our priorities straight,” Fragoso said, referring to a city council decision not to divert Mayor Joseph Ganim’s proposed tax cut to the school district.
At a meeting last week, School Board Finance Committee Chairman Jessica Martinez called the merger an unfortunate decision but that her mind was made up.
Board Member Maria Pereira said closing the school without a study and input from the impacted school communities would violate board policy.
“If you read any study on school closures, they decimate neighborhood property values,” she told Martinez.
“Our entire education budget decimates property values,” Martinez responded.
On Friday, Pereira attended Hall’s performance of Aladdin, then traveled to Edison to meet with leaders and parents from both schools and a number of district officials.
If Hall folds into Edison, Alicia Robinson, the district’s director of performing arts, said Hall will lose its status as a Turnaround Arts School, a distinction that provides it funding and materials for school plays and, this year, famed architect Thomas Mayne as a mentor.
Transportation Director Raul Laffitte said the schools are close, but that he would not recommend that Hall students walk across busy Boston Avenue, even with a crossing guard.
Food Services Director John Gerrity said merging the student bodies would require additional lunch waves and cut into the time the one all-purpose room at Edison could be used for gym class.
“It would be tight,” he said of the space.
Bridgeport’s school construction coordinator, Alan Wallack, said the only reason a decision was made to use Edison instead of Hall was size. Edison is about 11,000 square feet larger. But it lacks an auditorium, dedicated cafeteria and staff parking.
“We don’t teach dollars, we teach children and that is the issue. That is the problem,” Fernandes said when told the issue came down to dollars and cents.
At last week’s finance committee meeting, School Superintendent Aresta Johnson pressed for direction. Consolidating schools takes time and by contract, teachers need to know their assignments by June 1.
“It is not unusual, it’s standard practice,” she said.
“It’s not the ideal thing to do,” Board Chairman John Weldon said. But he said it is something he warned about at each city council budget hearing.
“We are at the end of the road,” Weldon said. “There is nothing left to cut. If there was disbelief in that regard that is unfortunate. We are going to do things that effect front-line service and not in a good way.”