The average Cheshire Public Schools building is 70 years of age. That might not be an issue if Cheshire received the endowment of an Ivy League institution. Unfortunately, we rely on an operations budget which has been historically lean and focused on students over facilities.
You might be surprised to learn that Cheshire spends $2,400 less per student than the average Connecticut school system. To get to the Connecticut average per-pupil cost, our annual operating budget would have to increase by more than $9.4 million. Nevertheless, our students perform at the top of Connecticut’s class. While our per-pupil expenditure ranks 119th of 166 Connecticut districts, our overall math and reading/writing performance is the fifth highest in the state.
Our Capital Budget is designed to address more substantial facility needs which include those major projects over $110,000 in cost. Decades of underfunding these capital expenditure needs have resulted in facility upgrade requests that are so high that the Town has only been able to appropriate an average of approximately 65% of the annual capital expenditure requests over the past 10 years. This is in spite of recent Town Council funding Capital projects at a rate higher than 90% over the past four years.
It can be easy to read about our academic success and believe that an investment is not necessary. It can be easy to drive by the newer facade at the front of Cheshire High School, completed in 2000 on South Main Street, and assume our buildings are relatively new and in great condition. Unfortunately, they are not.
The list of facility needs and concerns far exceeds the space I have been given in this column, but I can highlight a few. Our community has been working to remediate a significant list of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) deficiencies at Cheshire High School for almost a decade. Many of our buildings don’t have adequate ramps or elevators, limiting access to those in wheelchairs, on crutches, or physically unable to climb stairs.
It is common for our buildings to experience wild temperature swings. It is not uncommon for our classroom temperatures to swelter in the 90s at the beginning and end of our school calendar as our schools have limited to no air conditioning. Significant temperature variations in the winter require students to dress in layers because rooms may vary by 15 degrees as they travel throughout the building. The pandemic has also raised concerns about air circulation and filtration as another component of our heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Only Highland Elementary has a comprehensive HVAC system.
To be clear, we have maintained our buildings to the highest standards possible given the allocated funding, and our schools are fundamentally safe even though they are old and deficient in many ways. Still, our school system has reached a position where it is financially “upside down” indicating that the cost of inaction has become greater than the cost to act. If we experience a serious facility failure in one our buildings, we will incur an incredibly high financial and academic burden.
The aforementioned issues neglect to consider facility upgrades that would address educational and societal shifts over the last 50 years. For example, we would like to update our facilities to include contemporary science spaces such as greenhouses. The one current greenhouse we have (at CHS) is inaccessible due to ADA limitations. We also believe we should improve technology access for instruction in robotics. Security is another consideration that has dramatically shifted since our schools were originally constructed.
We must act not only to improve our academic settings, but also to protect the market value of our homes and businesses. It is not a secret that many people move to Cheshire for the schools. We can and need to do better for our community. This is not my assertion alone. This is a sentiment universally adopted by every member of our Town Council and Board of Education.
In 2019, the Town Council established the School Modernization Committee (SMC) composed of members of the Town Council, Board of Education, and members of the community to address the critical issue of our school conditions. Clearly, no community has the resources to fully remediate every school building at once. The SMC is in the process of developing a long-term plan that it will propose to the Town Council. That plan will undoubtedly be expensive after decades of limited action. That plan will not result in saving millions of dollars by closing a school. What that plan will do is improve our quality of life, protect our investment in education, increase the value of our homes, and promote future interests of our community.
I implore you to be engaged in this process. You may do so by following the SMC progress on the Town of Cheshire website at http://www.cheshirect.org/school-modernization-committee/. The SMC has developed a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CheshireSchoolModernizationCommittee/ as well.
The cost of remediating our District facilities is being meticulously planned and will likely come with significant costs. Burying our head in the sand at the sight of cost will not make the problem disappear. That approach inevitably leads to higher costs down the road. So here we are. The time to act is now!