EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 5, 2012

Salem board revisits Haigh School closure plan

By Doug Ireland

---- — SALEM — The School Board is reconsidering a controversial plan to close Haigh School, and is looking at the possibility of renovating and renting out the aging building.

The proposal by board member Bernard Campbell dominated the discussion during an hour and a half planning session last night at Salem High School. The board also contemplated but rejected the idea of redistricting the town's six elementary schools.

While neighborhood parents strongly oppose the closure of Haigh, as they did a similar proposal by Campbell last year, declining student enrollment districtwide means Salem needs to seriously consider closing the school to save money, Campbell said.

Only months after voters rejected a $21.5 million bond to renovate the Haigh, Soule and Fisk elementary schools, the board must decide its next move.

The decision comes at a time when the district must also consider plans to renovate the Center for Career and Technical Education at the high school because of the availability of state aid for the work in 2014, according to Superintendent Michael Delahanty.

Money for the design would have to be allocated for 2013, Delahanty said. Undertaking that project wouldn’t make sense unless the high school were renovated as well since they are in the same building, he said.

Campbell proposed shuttering Haigh but renovating and expanding Soule and Fisk. Residents voted against renovating those schools in March, but supported a similar plan in 2011 to upgrade the Lancaster, Barron and North Salem schools.

Campbell said the district needs to do the work at Soule and Fisk, so it can then renovate the high school — a much higher priority. "I want to pass something this year," he said. "We can then get on and do the important work we need to do here at the high school."

Board member Peter Morgan suggested Haigh receive minor renovations and then be rented instead of closed, leading to a possible decline in value.

Although district enrollment is dropping, the redevelopment of the closed Rockingham Park racetrack could increase the number of students, board members said.

"Even if the Haigh building closes as an elementary school, what is the right thing to do with that building?" Morgan asked. "We have to be really wise with what we do with Haigh School because it may have to reopen as a school in the future."

Board members agreed some renovations to Haigh should be done even if the school is closed in the next several years.

The board decided against redistricting the elementary schools. Board member Michael Carney Jr. said Salem should no longer have a half-dozen K-5, or "neighborhood" schools.

Instead, he supported splitting the grades, creating K-3 schools and sending the older elementary school students to facilities of their own. "I think that would give us the most flexibility," he said. It would also be better for students to group them by age, Carney said.

But the other board members agreed that plan would be too disruptive to the district.

Closing a school and redistricting could have a serious impact on Salem, Chairwoman Pamela Berry said.

"We are going to be dealing with a lot of angst, hurt and heartache with parents in this community," she said. "I think we need to realize this isn't going to be easy."

Berry said the board needs to narrow its options and hold a public forum to receive input from residents.