The first meeting for the committee tasked with assessing the town’s existing public school buildings and developing a plan for their future use was more about introductions and less about nuts and bolts, beams and concrete.
Ultimately, the 15-member committee will devise a plan for the use of Cheshire’s eight school buildings — the oldest of which is 107 years old and the newest of which is 48 years old — including recommending possible renovations, new construction, consolidations and closures. Monday night's meeting allowed for members to introduce themselves and their backgrounds, and provide a brief overview of what the group aims to accomplish.
Current Town Council Chairman Rob Oris Jr., who is not technically a member of the committee, served as the temporary chairman. He made clear that it will be up to the committee to decide the direction it takes.
Oris ensured there would be “complete transparency in the process.”
“This is really going to take a village, folks, and I mean that,” Oris said.
Oris noted that the Council had received 40 applications from Cheshire residents seeking to join the committee, explaining that the members were ultimately selected because they represented a “diverse group of people with different areas of expertise.”
The mission statement of the new committee, formed earlier this fall, iterates that the group has been established “to consider available options to upgrade the school facilities, which may include new construction, renovating existing facilities, closing and repurposing facilities and other, creative, viable proposals.”
The committee’s main responsibility will be to develop a plan for modernizing schools to address the needs of students while also “considering the fiscal impact” of any renovations or new construction on Cheshire residents.
Committee Member Matt Bowman showed up to the meeting armed with a list of questions that he said he hoped would get the group started. His queries included those related to building sizes, per-pupil costs at each school, and electricity and other utility expenses.
Board of Education Chair Kathryn Hallen responded, saying she believed much of that information was already made available in the previously-gathered Facility Master Plan, which was commissioned and supported by the BOE approximately three years ago.
“I don’t know that it’s going to be difficult to put this information together,” she said.
“That information is pretty readily available,” said Vincent Masciana, chief operating officer for the Cheshire Public Schools. Masciana said committee members need to have a basic understanding of the buildings the District currently operates, including how many students are in each of them.
“There’s a lot of information we need to take in, to go through ... Most of us are starting from square one,” Bowman said.
A Facility Master Plan presented to Town and Board of Education officials in 2017 stated, “most of the District’s classrooms, learning spaces and common areas such as cafeterias and gymnasiums are dated and need of upgrades.”
Earlier this month, voters approved a slew of capital upgrades, including window and boiler replacements in some school buildings, but other proposals, such as one to build a new middle school somewhere in Town, failed to receive Council support.
The committee has received a $150,000 allocation, approved by voters, which it can use at its discretion to hire consultants, engineers or other experts as it develops a plan.
“You may want to consider what consultants you may need to get this process,” Oris said, recommending that one of the group advertise a request for proposals from potential consultants as one of its early actions.
The committee will decide its new leadership at the next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 2.
According to the committee’s mission statement, the deadline to present its recommendations to the Town Council and Board of Education is Sept. 15, 2020. Any such recommendations will not be binding.
Peter Talbot, a Town Council representative on the group, noted its charge is “intentionally ambiguous and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Committee member Rich Gusenberg said that the group should be “very careful in talking about closing” school buildings at this point in the discussions. “We should not be taking any firm stances,” he said.
Bowman countered that the group should “be up front with people,” especially if, early in the process, it looks like the committee may lean toward recommending either redistricting of school boundaries or possible school building closures.
Should the committee decide that the town needs new school buildings, some state funding for new school construction is available via Connecticut’s School Construction Grant Program, which provides funding on a reimbursement basis. The State Department of Administrative Services oversees that program.
The percentage that Cheshire and other communities would receive as a reimbursement for new school construction during the current school year has so far not been reported. The State Department of Education reported that Cheshire’s reimbursement rate during the previous 2017-2018 school year was just under 44 percent of a school construction project’s total cost. For new school construction, that reimbursement rate was 36.43 percent.
Hallen noted it would be unlikely that the committee would put forth a plan that would meet the State School Construction Grant program’s June 30th annual deadline to include a proposed construction project for the next funding cycle.