Amity school rank at risk

WOODBRIDGE - Amity Regional High School's accreditation could be in "serious" jeopardy as a result of problems that have plagued the system for 18 months, the district's top educator said.

Superintendent of Schools Helene Skrzyniarz said the district's lack of an approved budget, compromised ability to borrow money for facility improvements and problems in the building contribute to the possibility that the high school could lose its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Most colleges and universities demand that students graduate from accredited high schools.

"This is not a scare tactic but the truth," Skrzyniarz said.

"The high school must maintain the proper accreditation status. When problems arise I have tried to face them honestly with the NEASC Commission of Public Secondary Schools," she told Amity Board of Education members.

Amity, which encompasses Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge, has faced financial trouble since August 2001, when a two-year, $2.8 million deficit was revealed. While state, local and school officials continue to investigate how the budget gap occurred, voters in district towns have refused to approve a spending plan for 2002-03.

Skrzyniarz, whose tenure with the district is only months old, said she felt compelled to share the ongoing problems with NEASC because she must ensure the district provides everything necessary to educate its students.

"I realize that Amity Senior High School's accreditation status may be seriously impacted by the situation in which we find ourselves and respectfully request the commission's input concerning the impact these factors will have upon the school's status," Skrzyniarz says in her letter to NEASC.

NEASC Associate Director Jane Allison said Friday that she could not comment on Skrzyniarz's letter because she has not seen it. Amity is on the agency's agenda for discussion in two weeks and the commission prefers to work with schools before issuing warnings, or probation status, she said.

"There are a series of steps to the process. If we deem it appropriate to warn then we implement the process," she said.

Skrzyniarz said the district has been working with NEASC to resolve issues, without success in some areas. As the district's new leader, Skrzyniarz said, she was asked by NEASC to report on its progress.

"Everyone at NEASC is aware of Amity's problems. They read the newspapers. If I don't tell them they would know anyway," she said.

Karen Shenkman, president of the Amity Education Association, the district's teachers' union, said the concern about loss of accreditation is a serious one. Such a loss would seriously impact students' option for high education, she said.

"The concern is real. If we lose accreditation it will mean students will have problems getting into college," she said.

School board Chairwoman Sue Cohen said she is aware of Skrzyniarz's concerns and also is worried about the district's accreditation status. Cohen said she believes a false sense of security exists in district towns.

"I know taxpayers feel things are running smoothly with the (town) boards of finance distributing funds for monthly requests. But there are significant issues that people are not aware of, and one is the accreditation of the high school," Cohen said.

Skrzyniarz said that, along with 10 failed budget referendums, a lack of a master plan for improvements and environmental issues at the high school jeopardize its accreditation status.

"Although progress has been made in identifying the areas that negatively impact the health and safety of building occupants, limited improvements have been made," she said.

"In late August the high school auditorium was closed because of concerns about the health of this space. Recent tests confirm that the auditorium must remain closed until additional repairs and upgrades are completed. However, closing the auditorium has made it difficult for the fine arts programs in music, drama and theater arts. Convocations for students also have been limited and many valuable presentations have been eliminated due to the lack of available space. At present, there is no clear plan for reopening the auditorium," she wrote to NEASC.

Skrzyniarz also told the NEASC she fears the district could enter the 2003-04 school year with a budget that is lower than the 2002-03 spending plan.

"If an approved budget is not in place by June it is possible that Amity will be forced to live with the original budget proposed for the 2001-02 school year…This would put the 2003-04 budget total significantly below this year's level of funding," she says in her letter.

"Without an approved budget, securing the funding for needed facilities improvements is impossible. Furthermore the bond rating of the region has deteriorated. Selling bonds to fund facilities improvements will be exacerbated over the next few years and may remain difficult until the region recoups from the effects of this situation," she wrote NEASC.