Cheshire Public Schools has been working diligently to prepare for the much anticipated fully in-person reopening of our schools and building upon the positivity we experienced during several end-of-year events in June. In the coming days Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan and CPS will be releasing more details regarding the reopening. The BOE will be reconvening on a number of topics beginning on Aug. 12.
In short, it is back to work.
Dr. Solan, CPS and the BOE are also very excited about our school modernization efforts. By now, most of our CPS community is aware of the work being performed by the CPS, BOE, Town Council and the School Modernization committee over the last 18 months. We are thankful and grateful for the hundreds if not thousands of combined hours that the School Modernization Committee members put into developing and delivering a plan for the community.
In reading this you may be thinking we’ve been at this mission since 2017. The reality is that Cheshire has been undertaking this mission since at least 1975. There’s been no shortage of analysis and, in fact, some may be thinking there’s been an overabundance of analysis-paralysis. What we do know is that the proverbial “can” can no longer be kicked down the road. We must make meaningful, long-term investments in our school buildings not only to address modernization efforts identified by the SMC but also a growing and pending enrollment issue that’s affecting our elementary schools. It’s time to act.
In 2017, the BOE completed and presented a long-term facilities master plan for the future state of our school buildings. This plan called for and detailed approximately $433 million in improvements, renovations, demolitions and/or construction of new buildings and touched every school building. It also detailed an upcoming enrollment spike that can’t be absorbed by our existing elementary school buildings. Even with the economic uncertainty several years ago, enrollment projections were looking positive for Cheshire. To say that the 2017 master plan price tag of $433 million was sticker shock to our community is an understatement but it was the reality, at that time. What became universally clear, however, was that our community needed to act collaboratively to address our aging schools.
Unfortunately, the 2021 price tag isn’t any better.
While SMC confirmed the validity of the 2017 plan, it also learned that our enrollment had dipped, but is significantly growing again. I cannot possibly cover all of the details, facts and studies that the SMC/BOE/Town Council cultivated over the last 18 months in this column, but suffice it to say that combined with the 2017 plan … the 2021 SMC is the most detailed and complete that we’ve seen in 46 years.
While space constraints, inefficient lighting, HVAC, ADA compliance, lack of storage and configurable classrooms and many other needs were identified in these last two studies, the most immediate concern is enrollment. It should be of no surprise that people want to move to Cheshire as evidenced by our recent enrollment increase and housing sales/starts and enrollment studies. Our elementary schools, as they stand, simply cannot absorb this enrollment. This, for any school, is a great problem to have. And for Cheshire, we should be proud of having a wonderful inclusive community that places high value on our public schools that are some of the best performing in the state and nation. While some may believe this enrollment boom is a problem, we see this as a tremendous opportunity to not only modernize our school infrastructure but to also advance our educational programming.
In short, after digesting and debating what seemed like an endless supply of factual information the SMC dwindled approximately 16 options down to two. Both scenarios address all of our schools’ modernization needs across three phases. The SMC voted to move forward a preferred scenario and a secondary scenario. They are similar except for one aspect: The preferred scenario (Scenario 6) calls for the construction of two new K-6 elementary schools to replace two existing schools. The secondary scenario (Scenario 2A), calls for a new 6-through-8-grade middle school and a new K-5 elementary school in Phase 1. This past April, upon receipt of the plan the BOE consensus was aligned with the SMC preferred option and secondary option. It’s worth noting that while there’s consensus on the BOE for the preferred option, all seven BOE members are open to the secondary option. No vote has been taken by the BOE yet, as more critical information is needed. And more importantly, we need community feedback.
The Town Council began its detailed financial analysis of the preferred plan in June. Test fits are underway to determine which properties in town can accommodate these new buildings and we anticipate results in two or three weeks. Bringing our school facilities to contemporary standards will be the biggest capital project the town has ever seen, but critically necessary for our community. We thank the Town Council and staff for undertaking this critical financial analysis and assisting us with test fits. If you have not been watching or attending the recent modernization meetings, I request that you do so. Finances will dictate how far and wide we can modernize without putting the town in fiscal jeopardy yet still provide an equitable education experience.
There has been much emphasis and debate in our community over one specific aspect of these scenarios — the choice between two new K-6 elementary schools and a new 6-through-8-grade middle school. Every BOE member is hearing from a variety of stakeholders for and against each approach. Per Dr. Solan, neither approach is a bad choice for Cheshire Public Schools. Choosing between a K-6 or a 6-8 approach requires serious and thoughtful analysis as Dr. Solan has been demonstrating. It’s debatable, and perhaps will always be, whether a K-6 or a 6-8 MS approach provides the best possible education programming and value.
As with our community, BOE members are passionate about this topic, as evidenced in our discussions over the last 18 months. While our community has every right to debate this particular aspect, and we look forward to engaging you in this discussion, we simply cannot focus on just this one aspect of either scenario. We must take the entire plan, all three phases, into consideration. Let us not forget that this is a long-term facilities modernization plan that addresses all of our schools and grade levels. I hope we focus on the totality of Scenario 6 and/or Scenario 2A. It’s worth noting this is my personal opinion and not reflective of the BOE as a whole.
However, there are more facts and factors to consider. I would like to clarify one of them: This past spring, representatives from the SMC, Colliers, Dr. Solan, his staff and I met with representatives from the OSGR (CT Office of School Construction Grants & Review). Colliers presented our analysis from the study. Obtaining approval from OSCGR is critical in securing reimbursement and support for this initiative so it’s prudent that they’re consulted. OSCGR confirmed our enrollment issue encouraging CPS to address it immediately. Projected enrollment for the two new elementary schools in Scenario 6 is within their guidelines (400-700 students) at 653 and 659 projected enrollment. OSCGR found this very favorable. Projected enrollment for the 6-8 middle school in Scenario 2A is approximately 1,200 students which is beyond their guideline of 900 students and unfavorable. Should CPS present this option the bar is set high for approval given the guidelines.
The concept of the 6-8 middle school produced an additional hurdle to overcome: Should such a proposal be made coupled with a high student population, then a convincing case must be made by CPS community support.
A middle school proposal is not out of the question but poses a challenge nonetheless. If any town and school district can rise to this challenge it’s Cheshire. However, an “iron-clad” case doesn’t exist at this time. This alone may not be reason enough not to propose a new middle school option, but it is a factor to consider and was one of many factors considered by the SMC.
As we continue to work together with the Town Council and our community, obtain feedback, and consider constructive criticism, I ask that we don’t lose sight of the facts contained with this modernization study. Our fellow neighbors worked very hard to cultivate these scenarios.
Collaboration, not controversy, will help drive a solution and a referendum that the town can get behind and support. We’re also not looking to prolong the process or continue analysis for another 46 years. Dr. Solan, CPS Staff and the BOE believe we have exhausted the analysis of school modernization. We need to act. This is backed by the SMC Community Survey conducted earlier this year that demonstrated overwhelming support for school investment.
We as a town have never been closer and more together towards making school modernization a reality that we can all be proud of.
Soon, the Town Council and BOE will hold a joint meeting to review the financial analysis and test fit results. The financial analysis may be the biggest factor of all to determine just how far and wide CPS can implement modernization. This meeting will also give Councilors an opportunity to hear from Dr. Solan, his team and BOE members directly. Additional meetings and discussions will be planned by the BOE into the next few months to give more opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in on this process. These meetings dates/times will be communicated as early as Aug. 12, during our first BOE Business Meeting of the new school year.
At some point, the Board of Education will vote on an official plan that will ultimately be presented to the state for approval. We need your help to make this happen and we’re looking forward to hearing from you and collaborating with you. Please don’t hesitate to contact the BOE or the Town Council with any questions, concerns, or ideas you may have on this topic.