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Hurlbutt Elementary School: North House plans are still up in the air

The Weston school district is considering giving a portion of the North House section of Hurlbutt Elementary School to the town. Most likely, the Senior Center, now located in a portion of South House, would move to North House.

The Weston school district is considering giving a portion of the North House section of Hurlbutt Elementary School to the town. Most likely, the Senior Center, now located in a portion of South House, would move to North House.

The Weston Board of Education has postponed voting on the status of North House at Hurlbutt Elementary School— whether to hand over part of it to the town for municipal use — until its Dec. 17 meeting.

The issue was originally going to be discussed and possibly voted on by the board on Nov. 19. However, because of the time crunch caused by storm Sandy, Superintendent Colleen Palmer said school officials want to give people more time to hear about the proposal for North House and weigh in with their opinions.

North House has been a topic of discussion at recent school board committee meetings, PTO meetings, and a “Coffee with the Superintendent” held last Saturday.

Dr. Palmer is asking the public to send questions about North House to her at sblog@westonps.org; she will address them on her blog on the school’s website, westonps.org.

The Board of Selectmen initially was also going to discuss North House at its meeting on Monday, Nov. 19, but deleted the item from its agenda in light of the school board’s decision not to vote on the matter until next month.

“It is school property and the selectmen are not making any decisions until the schools decide what they are going to do,” First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said last Thursday.

Earlier this week, Ms. Weinstein added that there are “many, many steps” that need to be taken before anything is finalized.

First, the school board must decide what space it wants to hand over to the town and who would be responsible for what. Then the Board of Selectmen would have to discuss it and decide whether to accept the space and the conditions being proposed by the schools. Next it would need to go to the Planning and Zoning Commission for 8-24 approval since it involves changing the use of a town-owned building. And finally, any plan that involves money for renovations also needs finance board approval.

Declining enrollment

The issue under consideration is what to do with extra space in the Weston schools in light of projections of declining enrollment.

Enrollment for the school district peaked in 2006 with 2,615 students. It has been on a steady decline ever since, and as of Oct. 1, 2012, there were 2,430 students enrolled in Weston public schools.

A study prepared by NESDEC (New England School Development Council) projected a continued decrease in enrollment in the next 10 years. While the projection is not a certainty — and should the economy improve, enrollment rates could stay the same or increase — Dr. Palmer has said the district should prepare in case enrollment continues to decrease.

At a joint meeting of the boards of selectmen, finance, and education on Oct. 10, Dr. Palmer said it made the most sense to turn over the first floor space at Hulrbutt’s North House to the town for its use.

The second floor of North House would remain with the school, but could be re-allocated in the future.

Dr. Palmer told the Hurlbutt PTO last week that unlike the three other schools in the district, the elementary school was built in phases and sections, so it makes sense to allocate space from Hurlbutt to the town rather than from the other schools.

The Senior Activities Center would likely relocate from the South House of Hurlbutt, where it is located now, to North House. This is a move Dr. Palmer supports because the school would like to use South House, which was designed specifically for small children. North House is better suited for older grades. Hurlbutt currently houses grades pre-K through two.

Nothing is finalized

In addition to the Senior Center, the town could also relocate some of its offices — such as Parks and Recreation, Children and Youth Services, or  Social Services — to North House, but no final decision has been made about that proposal.

Ms. Weinstein said on Monday she has heard that one likely condition of use will be that land use offices — which are often visited during the workday by contractors and other members of the public — not be re-located to Hurlbutt if students are still using the second floor.

“Nothing is finalized yet. It still has not been fully vetted with the Board of Selectmen,” Ms. Weinstein said.

In order to protect the safety and integrity of the school, Dr. Palmer said, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) would be entered into with the town about the use of North House.

Should the schools need to take the space back because of increased enrollment, Dr. Palmer said, that language would be included in the memorandum. “Nothing will erode the quality of the curriculum or education,” Dr. Palmer said.

Ms. Weinstein said she would like to see a long-term agreement with the schools — as long as five or even 10 years. Neither the schools nor the town wants to spend money renovating the space if it needs to be changed again in a few years, she said.

“I want to be pretty clear. Any space we renovate, it will be that way for a while going forward,” Ms. Weinstein said.

This past August, the school board entered into a short-term MOU with the town approving the use of additional space in South House for the Senior Center for the 2012-13 fiscal year. In that MOU, the school board assumed all electric, heating, and cleaning costs for the Senior Center area.

Dr. Palmer and Ms. Weinstein told the PTO that if the Senior Center moves to North House, the town, rather than the schools, would assume those costs.

The MOU also foresaw the possibility that more space could open up in the schools because of declining enrollment. It stated, “Anticipating that further fluctuations in enrollment will impact space usage of district facilities by the town, the BOE [Board of Education] will endeavor to identify what district space may be available for use by the town during the 2013-14 fiscal year as soon as reasonably possible during the upcoming fiscal year.”

A few years ago, the schools agreed to give up space in South House for the town to establish a Senior Center. What was originally one room for seniors has since expanded to three classrooms and partial use of a multi-purpose room, for a total of 2,100 square feet.

At North House, the Senior Center would also get 2,100 square feet of space, but unlike the multi-purpose room in South House, which was shared with the school, the center would get a full 2,100 square feet for its sole use.

A separate parking lot would be constructed for the Senior Center at North House, freeing up spaces currently designated for the center at South House.

Because North House has separate outside entrances, it can be closed off so there won’t be direct access from it to the main school building.

When a parent at the PTO meeting asked about the possibility of relocating the district’s central offices to North House instead of putting town offices there, Dr. Palmer said that would not be considered unless the second floor of North House was vacated, which at this time it isn’t.

However, Ms. Weinstein said it’s her understanding that the school board is considering vacating the Town Annex building in 2015-16, and creating office space on the second floor of North House. That is another thing that is very much in the “discussion” phase, however, she added.

No decision has been made about the status of the playground next to North House.

Parents at the PTO meeting said they have concerns about the future plans for North House and hope their input will be part of the school board’s discussion and decisions.

Hurlbutt parent Melissa Chesman said parents do not begrudge seniors the opportunity to have space in North House. However, if parts of North House are being considered for other community ventures she believes a discussion with the community should take place now before any action is taken.

Editor Kimberly Donnelly contributed to this story.

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