Due to declining enrollment that’s expected to continue for the next several years, the Weston school district is considering closing off part of Hurlbutt Elementary School to students as a way to save money.
The plan is not to let those unneeded classrooms sit empty, however; they will likely be turned over to the town for a new expanded Senior Center and possibly to house some town employees.
At a joint meeting of the boards of selectmen, finance, and education held last Wednesday, Oct. 10, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said it makes the most sense to think about doing this in the North House section of Hurlbutt Elementary School — specifically, the first floor of the two-story section of the school.
If the move were ultimately approved by the school board — it is still in the discussion phase; no final decisions have yet been made — the town would more than double the space it has access to now at the school.
A few years ago, the schools agreed to give up space in South House at Hurlbutt for the town to establish a Senior Center. What was originally one room there for seniors, has since expanded to three classrooms and partial use of a multi-purpose room (a small gymnasium).
There are eight classrooms on the first floor of North House, as well as rest room facilities. First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said the most likely scenario would be to use four of those rooms for a Senior Center and four to house town employees.
Dr. Palmer said she and Jo-Ann Keating, director of finance and operations for the school district, as well as many other administrators, have been looking at every possible scenario for reconfiguring the available space in the schools to best suit the needs of the students in the most efficient way.
There are several limitations, Dr. Palmer said.
For one thing, Weston is a small district with four very different school buildings, which means there is little duplication of facilities.
A major limitation, she said, is the state requires all pre-K and kindergarten students to be housed on the first floor of any building. It’s why there are so many “ranch-style, sprawling elementary schools” in the state, she said.
In addition, first graders may only be in classrooms on the first or second floors.
It is also standards for younger students to have bathrooms in their classrooms, and those bathrooms are equipped with smaller than normal facilities.
“In the whole district, only Hurlbutt can be used for those younger students,” Dr. Palmer explained. To try to retrofit any of the other buildings to meet the requirements for younger students would be cost prohibitive, she said.
Conversely, there are requirements for older students, such as age-appropriate science labs, locker rooms, gyms, bathrooms, etc., that are only found in the high school and middle school.
In looking theoretically at how grades could be housed differently in Weston’s four existing schools, without too much retrofitting — just looking at the structures, not the actual or expected numbers of students — Dr. Palmer said they discovered the following:
• Hurlbutt could house grades pre-K-5.
• Weston Intermediate School could accommodate those in grades 1-5.
• Weston Middle School could have grades 4-8 (a larger age range would impact the team teaching structure in place there, Dr. Palmer said).
• Weston High School could accommodate grades 6-12.
Given all of these factors, “it’s not likely we’d be able to [completely] close one of our schools regardless of what our enrollment becomes,” Dr. Palmer said.
Therefore, she said, if the district and town want to “cluster” as much available space in one school to re-purpose it or “hibernate” it so as not to have to have to pay the expense of operating that part of that facility, “the most logical school for us to look at is Hurlbutt,” Dr. Palmer said.
The superintendent said in the future, the school board may look into the possibility of moving grade two to the intermediate school, but that doesn’t make sense right now.
Hurlbutt is a building that has had many additions tacked onto it over the years, and it shows, Dr. Palmer said. It makes sense to try to keep kids as close to the core of the building and to maintain common areas.
The area that is “least helpful for serving students” turns out to be North House — the section one first passes when coming in the driveway — because it is a two-story section and there are no bathrooms in the classrooms.
It is also has separate outside entrances. Inside, it can be closed off so there wouldn’t be direct access from it to the main school building. That is important if members of the public are to be there at the same time as students, Dr. Palmer said.
School board member Denise Harvey asked if giving up the North House area would give the schools “enough flexibility” if enrollment were to change and additional sections were to be needed in the grades at Hurlbutt.
“Even with the largest projected uptick [in enrollment], we could still manage,” Dr. Palmer said. “I feel it’s very low risk to the Board of Education to consider that the first floor of North House would not be used by the district next year,” the superintendent said.
First Selectman Weinstein said she is very excited about the prospect of using the North House space for an expanded Senior Center.
“”I feel our seniors are a very important part of this town and I feel they deserve a space… There’s a lot of positives that can be gained by this,” Ms. Weinstein said. She pointed out that 17% of the town’s population is seniors and, under the leadership of Senior Center Director Wendy Petty for the last two years or so, the Senior Activities Center is “blossoming.”
Ms. Weinstein said the town will also look at ways some of the municipal departments might be reconfigured if given the additional space at Hurlbutt.
Some departments are currently housed at the Town hall Annex, which is a temporary structure near the Central Office building. The Annex was put in place 10 years ago, and was given a life expectancy at that time of about 10 years. Due to good maintenance, Ms. Weinstein said, the town might be able to get a maximum of another five years of use from it.
Jarvis House on the corner of Norfield and Weston roads is another building that houses town employees — the Parks and Recreation Department is there.
Ms. Weinstein said it would make sense for certain departments to be clustered more efficiently. For example, she said, land use departments should be together, and it would be logical for Parks and Recreation to be near the Youth Services Department, which should be near Social Services.
Police and dispatch are other areas that need attention, she said.
A Townwide Global Strategic Planning Committee is in place to look at all of the town’s facilities to see what changes might make sense, Ms. Weinstein said.
In addition, Tracey Kulikowski, land use director, is doing a parking study becasue parking near North House is non-existent and is a concern, Ms. Weinstein said.