The debate over Phase One of school modernization was long and, at times, tense.
That was to be expected as the Town was discussing the most expensive project ever considered, one that will ask more of the Cheshire taxpayer at a time when everything seems to be costing more than it did just a year ago.
In the end, the proponents of the first phase won out. The plan, presented to the voters at referendum last November, passed by a comfortable margin and the Town, in the form of the School Building Committee, has already started work on making sure the idea of two new schools in Cheshire becomes a reality.
After such a long road to approval, one could be excused for not wanting to delve back into such debates anytime soon. It’s expected that Phase One will take approximately three years to complete, and no doubt many will want to see how that project goes before moving on to any other big-ticket endeavors. As School District officials have already admitted, the ability of the Town to bring Phase One in on time and on or under budget will likely influence whether voters will be as willing to approve future portions of school modernization.
That, however, doesn’t mean the conversations shouldn’t begin in earnest. As officials have rightfully pointed out, the age of school buildings in Cheshire is the driving force behind this effort to replace and/or refurbish the existing structures, and as the community moves to replace two of its elementary schools over the next three years, the other buildings will not be getting any younger.
During recent budget discussions, District officials made clear that maintenance costs for all of Cheshire’s schools will continue to be high because it costs more to maintain an old facility than it does a new one. Obviously, the Town won’t be moving forward with any major, long-term projects at Norton or Chapman Schools, as both are set to be replaced by new structures. But what about the other buildings? What about the next few phases of school modernization? What does the general plan look like?
These are conversations that should be had before any major capital projects are proposed at local schools. Obviously, the Town must maintain the facilities as best as possible so that students and faculty have a safe and comfortable environment in which to learn, but any projects that would have a long shelf life must be factored into what local school officials are considering when it comes to the next few phases of school modernization.
For instance, there was considerable debate over whether Phase One should address elementary schools or Dodd Middle School. The decision was ultimately made to replace Norton and Chapman, but do District officials envision the replacement of Dodd as part of Phase Two? Or could Dodd be refurbished in a way that meets the needs of 21st century learning?
That question would seemingly need an answer before the Town moved forward with any major projects at the facility. If the plan is to recommend a new middle school be built, and for that project to begin five to 10 years down the road, then the Town will need to address current capital projects with that in mind. If, however, the plan will be to refurbish Dodd, or any other building, then larger, long-lasting “fixes” would be more understandable.
Undoubtedly, District officials have already thought about and discussed this, but as Phase One moves forward, there should be a robust public conversation about what the next phases, and their timelines, may look like. Of course, plans can and will change, and voters will ultimately have the final say in what projects move forward and which don’t. But before the Town invests in current schools, the long-term vision for each of the community’s school buildings should be discussed in depth.