CONWAY — “This is historic,” is how Randy Davison termed it, after he and three of his Conway School Board colleagues successfully voted to move the district’s sixth-graders into the Kennett Middle School for the 2023-24 school year.
“This administration now has the charge to do it,” said Davison, who has contended for more than 15 years that a “true middle school” should comprise grades six, seven and eight.
Voting with him were Cassie Capone, Barbara Lyons and Ryan Wallace.
Capone said: “Everything that I read, stated that it was better for students to be in a six through eight. There is a more substantial curriculum. It allows them to discover and develop their interests. … I do believe, after the research that I've done and my own experience, that it would be in the best interest.”
Voting against were Michelle Capozzoli, board chair, and Joe Mosca, vice chair.
“I do feel, educationally, that I don't like that seventh- and eighth-grade transition,” Capozzoli said.
She added: “I am fully excited that we made a decision, but I am frustrated because we've always been given parameters and have not been able to look at all configurations and all buildings.”
“Ditto,” Mosca said.
Capozzoli believes the board hasn’t “thought outside the box,” when it comes to school configurations.
“You can say how many studies that you can throw out in front of me that it's been paid or have done this or done that, but this is now 2022, we still have a declining population,” she said. “And every single time you have those studies, you cannot touch the middle school or Conway Elementary.”
Capozzoli said no one has looked at moving the seventh and eighth grades to Kennett High School and creating a 7-12 school. If this occurred, she also offered the possibility of moving all of the elementary schools under one roof at the middle school and then the district could close or sell the three elementary school properties.
Capozzoli also suggested looking at moving the middle school into Conway Elementary and the elementary schools into the middle school which would lead to the closure or sale of two elementary properties.
“I think we owe to everyone to think outside the box,” she said.
Capone responded: "As a mother, with the state of the high school right now, I would be extremely opposed to sending a seventh-grader up there with all of the problems that are happening right now."
Wallace agreed with the board not thinking outside the box. He said deciding to move the sixth grade to the middle school put the board one step closer to closing an elementary school.
“You're going to remove 90 students give or take from three elementary schools,” he said. “John Fuller is going to be at 120 students, give or take. Pine Tree would be at about 200 and Conway El at about 170. You're making that argument to close one of them, and we're kind of going about it in a roundabout way.”
He added: “Although I do support sixth grade going to the middle school, I do agree with you on looking at the bigger picture about the use of facilities.”
“I think Ryan is spot on,” Lyons said, who said she would like to do a walk-through of the middle school to see where the students will go, what repairs need to be made and what it will cost.
The move in the fall of 2023 will impact an estimated 81 sixth-graders from Conway Elementary School, John H. Fuller Elementary and Pine Tree School. The projected number of sixth-graders for 2024-25 is 77, according to Davison.
The district formed study committees in 2009 and 2015 to explore creating a 6-8 middle school. While they recommended the move, the committees deemed it cost-prohibitive due to the tuition contracts with the sending towns.
With the 20-year tuition contract in its final years, Conway would lose about $100,000 in revenue with the move in 2023.
“Doing this in 2023-24 would give the administration time to readjust and figure out how they're going to do it," Davison said.
Under public comments before the board discussion, John Edgerton, who recently completed his 41st year on the budget committee, urged the board to move the sixth grade into the middle school.
“When the middle school opened (in 2007), there were 430 students and now it has 220 students,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was recommended that sixth grade be moved to the middle school to put them into the middle school environment. You would have English teachers for English and a math teacher for math, and you would give them a better education. … There was no reason except politics to not get it done by 2023.”
“I appreciate John Edgerton coming forward tonight because I appreciate his words, his wisdom,” said Davison.
Mosca talked about finances.
“I'm not opposed to it, but it's more than just the $100,000 that it's going to cost the taxpayers. There's work that needs to be done to the building. We need to come up with a budget to fix something and it's going to be substantial.”
He offered an amendment to move the sixth grade to the middle school if and when an elementary school is closed. Mosca did not get a second to the amendment.