EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 13, 2012

Parents say: Keep the Haigh open,

Salem school renovation plans spark debate at forum

By Doug Ireland direland@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — SALEM — For two hours, more than two dozen parents pleaded with the School Board, with most asking that Haigh School remain open and others saying Salem High School needs to be renovated.

Some presented student enrollment figures to back their arguments while others simply asked questions. But none of them presented the physical evidence that Nick Fosman did.

As the Salem High junior addressed the board and approximately 100 residents in the school auditorium, Fosman — microphone in hand, he suddenly ducked into a hallway.

He emerged a minute later, holding a wall tile for all to see.

“Some of these are on the floor cracked,” he said. “They have been like that for weeks or even months. These could have fallen on us.”

All eyes in Seifert Auditorium were focused on the 16-year-old student.

“It is not safe, it is not good for the school,” Fosman said. “Our school — and I’m not joking about it — is falling apart and we need to do something about it.”

While Fosman and several other Salem residents pushed for renovation of the high school, the majority said they backed a proposed upgrade of the Salem, Fisk and Haigh schools. District officials said the elementary schools would be renovated, then the high school.

In March, voters rejected a $21.5 million bond to renovate the three elementary schools — only months after the district spent roughly the same amount of money on improvements to its three other elementary schools.

But the School Board recently concluded it may not be feasible to keep Haigh School open after an enrollment study showed the number of students in the district is falling sharply.

“I think it’s quite evident with the enrollment projections we won’t need six (elementary) schools in a couple of years,” Superintendent Michael Delahanty said. “Does it make prudent sense to operate six schools when you can easily do this with five schools?”

The district’s eight schools have 4,061 students in kindergarten through 12th-grade, will have only 2,931 by 2021-2022, according to Delahanty.

The district would save about $895,000 if it closed Haigh and didn’t proceed with a $5.5 million renovation plan, Delahanty said. The owner of a $300,000 home would save $85, he said.

Even if Haigh were closed, the district still proposes spending $2.3 million in improvements so it wouldn’t fall into disrepair, Delahanty said.

The School Board is considering five options for renovating the schools, including two that call for no work to be done at Haigh. Some residents accused the board of already deciding it would close Haigh, but they were told it was just one of several proposals being considered.

“There is no clear plan in front of us to close Haigh School,” Chairman Pamela Berry said

One by one, residents told the board that Haigh must be renovated and remain open as part of “the three-school plan.” No one in the audience spoke in favor of its closure.

“The Haigh School community should and will vote no to a two-school plan,” resident Rich Wilson said.

Wilson criticized the district’s enrollment studies, saying they were based on flawed data.

Sherry Kilgus-Kramer, head of Strengthen Our Schools, said her organization supports renovation of all three elementary schools. Closing a school isn’t a viable option, she said.

“It just seems unimaginable to me,” she said. “You just don’t let one remain unrenovated.”

All of the district’s schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Hallways and closets in the unrenovated schools are often used as office space or to teach students.

“I would honestly hate to see Haigh School close,” resident Colleen Field said. “It’s a great school and I hope it gets to stay open.”

Other parents said closing Haigh would lead to detrimental redistricting and higher class sizes. The district plans to renovate the last three elementary schools before upgrading the high school and Woodbury School.

The board must now decide which renovation plan it intends to present to voters in March.