Wilton planners move toward approval of Montessori middle school

The Montessori School on Whipple Road in Wilton has entered into a stipulated judgment with the Planning and Zoning Commssion involving the additons of grades 7 and 8.

The Montessori School on Whipple Road in Wilton has entered into a stipulated judgment with the Planning and Zoning Commssion involving the additons of grades 7 and 8.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

Although it has not taken a vote on the issue, the Planning and Zoning Commission is moving toward approval of a request by the Montessori School on Whipple Road to add seventh and eighth grade classes.

At its meeting on Nov. 11, the commission asked the planning department staff to draft a resolution of approval with conditions upon which members will vote at their next meeting on Nov. 25.

The conditions include:

 Improving traffic circulation with staggered starts, teacher parking restrictions, improved signs, and the use of monitors during student drop-off and pickup.

 Limiting the seventh and eighth grades to a total of 40 students.

 Annual enrollment reporting by grade.

 Requirements for alternative parking, that is not on the street, in connection with school-hosted events.

The request for seventh and eighth grade is a modification of the school’s existing special permit. The Montessori School ran a school for seventh and eighth graders in Norwalk, but it has been “on hiatus” since the 2017-2018 school year.

The request is unpopular with the school’s neighbors, many of whom attended last Monday’s meeting to voice their concerns.

Speaking for the school was Tracey Casetlli, a former board member, who said the second campus “was really expensive” and that this request is “to accommodate our community and our pedagogy.” She said the school is not looking to expand its enrollment, which is capped at 230 students. The school is well below that cap at present, with 142 students enrolled during the 2018-2019 school year. When the middle school was closed, there were just 10 students enrolled.

Eric Christman, who lives around the corner on Ivy Lane, voiced the sentiments of some of the school’s neighbors, saying, “We love having the school in our neighborhood, we support the mission, we’re all parents, we like the idea of education but we do like it as it is, as an elementary school which it always was before the Montessori School was there, which they applied to be from the beginning. We don’t want it to change in ways that it negatively affects our neighborhood.”

The Montessori School purchased the Post School in 1988. Enrollment was 110 students. Some years later it purchased and razed 22 Whipple Road, increasing its acreage from 5.97 to 7.59 acres. The school had applied to add seventh and eighth grade in 2004, but withdrew that application.

Christman and several other neighbors objected primarily to the kinds of activities middle school students and their parents might expect such as dances at night and sporting events that would bring in students and parents from other schools.

Commissioner Rick Tomasetti said he did not see anything in the town’s zoning regulations that distinguish between an elementary, middle and high school, but Commissioner Christopher Pagliaro said “this doesn’t preclude us from finding gray. We have some dangerous parking issues. If the neighbors have concerns about this and the school has needs, how do we mitigate the concerns of the neighbors if seventh and eighth grade are allowed?”

Mark Reifers of Ivy Lane was concerned that older students would require more room for things like locker rooms and showers, which would bring the school back seeking permission to expand its footprint.

“They’re a well-heeled institution,” he said. “They’ve approached three of my neighbors to buy their houses … every time they get more, we get less. It hurts our neighborhood. Property values will deplete as they put in parking lots, more buildings. We’re all going to suffer and it’s not fair.”

Carolyn Reifers said “having activities every day will result in more cars, more traffic, other teams arriving by bus and more parents coming in cars.” She reminded the commissioners Whipple Road is a dead-end street.

“We are entitled to live in a quiet and peaceful environment … without the continuous threat of a special permit request from a private school.”

Lisa Potter, head of school at the Montessori School, followed the comments of residents by trying to reassure them the school has “no current plans” to go beyond the 230-enrollment cap.

She also said having middle school students would bring “no material change to programs we already have,” which include competitive athletic events.

Both Tomasetti and Chairman Scott Lawrence tried to pin Potter to the number of students they would need for a viable program, but she did not answer directly.

“How many students do you need in seventh and eighth grade?” Tomasetti asked.

“There isn’t one number,” Potter said.

“There’s a number,” Tomasetti said.

“We could have five or 10. We could have 30,” she said. “We can’t have more students than we’re allowed.”

“I want a number,” Tomasetti said. “If we approve, I want to know what is the number of students you need in terms of your accreditation.”

“It would be nice to have at least 10,” Potter said.

Commissioner Melissa Rotini jumped in and said, “when we asked about the number of students, 28 students is the cap through sixth grade. We are trying to figure out if you have a seventh and eighth grade class, what is the minimum and maximum number of students?”

Potter replied there are no regulations governing the number of students in seventh and eighth grade. Their accreditation through the Connecticut Association of International Schools covers K-6.

“At some point, you need to commit to me what is the maximum size class of seventh and eighth graders,” Tomasetti said.

Potter replied 30 to 40 would be an optimal size class.

The public hearing was closed shortly thereafter and the commission moved on to deliberation.

“It sounds like we are moving toward an obligatory yes,” Lawrence said, referring to the fact the zoning regulations do not preclude the request on the issue of land use.

He added, “If we were looking at this fresh, I would not do this. I’d have a school plan, I’d have enrollment numbers, enrollment projections.”

The Montessori School provided the commission with enrollment numbers for the last 10 years, which showed the greatest enrollment was 224 students in 2012-2013. The Norwalk-based middle school peaked at 37 students in 2011-12.

The public hearing may be viewed online at wiltonct.org.