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North House plan: Board addresses questions

North House at Hurlbutt Elementary School. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Weston Superintendent Colleen Palmer is using her blog on the school website, westonps.org, to address some of the questions and concerns parents have about the proposal to allocate a portion of the first floor of the North House building at Hurlbutt Elementary School to the town.

The school board postponed voting on the plan at its November meeting to Dec. 17 in order to give members of the community the opportunity to ask questions and comment on the proposal.

The school board is considering allocating approximately 9,800 square feet of North House to the town. 5,000 square feet  would be used for the senior center. The seniors  currently occupy space at Hurlbutt’s South House, which would return to use by grades K-1 with a move to North House.

The seniors would also have use of a 2,200-square-foot gym in the lower level of North House when the school is not using it.

An additional 4,800 square feet on the first floor of North House could be allocated to the town as well because it will not be needed for classroom space next year due to projected declining enrollment.

The upper level of North House, approximately 9,800 square feet, would continue to be used by the schools in the 2013-14 school year for second grade students. Should enrollment decline further, the second grade could possibly be moved to the intermediate school in 2014-15, and that space could be used by either the schools or the town.

Jo-Ann Keating, the schools’ director of finance and operations, said no firm decisions have been made at this time about the allocation of space at North House. Any plan, she said, would require that security measures be taken to keep the town and schools separated.

The Board of Selectmen has yet to discuss the issue at a meeting. However, First Selectman Gayle Wenstein told a group of parents at a Hurlbutt PTO meeting that the town could possibly use the additional space for the relocation of some town offices.

School board member Ellen Uzenoff said communication among the town boards and with the public is very important so that everyone understands what is going on. She supports holding a work session or joint meeting with the school board and the selectmen, in order to reach out to the public and give them as much information as possible.

Q&A

 The following are some of the questions about North House posted on the superintendent’s blog and a summation of her answers.

Why is the district considering [sharing] space with the town at this time?

The town has current facilities needs and, with declining enrollment over the past few years that is projected to continue in the future, the district has underutilized space. It makes sense to work hand in hand with the town to utilize resources effectively between the town and district. Allocating some district space to town needs reduces the overall financial burden to the entire community. Any plan to share district space would be designed so there is no negative impact to the educational program of the district.

When would all of this shift in space occur?

Through enrollment projections, there is a high degree of confidence that in 2015-16, there would be fewer than 500 students in the intermediate school, when it was built for more than 700 students. It would be feasible to relocate grade two from Hurlbutt at that time, opening up all of North House for use by the district and town as administrative space.

For 2013-14, the district can easily manage without using the first floor classroom space of the North House. As discussions proceed and plans are finalized, it may make more sense to begin the transition to use all of North House for non-school purposes earlier than 2015-16. The school board will act on this issue at its December meeting.

Does this generate revenue for our school?

The district has housed the Senior Center going on seven years and has paid for all expenses to operate the Senior Center over this period of time. With the shift to the town possibly having more shared space on campus, the direct expenses for cleaning, utilities, etc., will be transferred to the town from the school budget, reflecting a true accounting of how the funds are being allocated.

The strategic plan for the district also calls for exploration of entrepreneurial initiatives to generate revenue in other ways. The goal is to keep our budgets as low as possible, while never compromising the quality of education.

Who covers the capital improvement cost of space by the Senior Center?

The town would appropriate funds through the budget process of capital expenditures.

Could North House be used as a community center?

A community center would be under the purview of the town, and it would need to determine its priorities in terms of using space.

We are very opposed to town offices on district property. Why is it being considered?

Currently, there are both district and town offices housed in the Annex building, a set of portable classrooms that were built to house our kindergartners prior to the intermediate school’s construction.

These retrofitted spaces work extremely well for offices for both the district and town and create no issues of conflict with our school operations. The Annex was constructed as a temporary building, and it is nearing the end of its useful life. It also costs more than $80,000 per year to operate.

Looking to the future, when the district has other space that is not needed for educational purposes, it makes fiscal sense for both the district and town to utilize existing resources. If the town were required to build new facilities, this debt would place a burden on funding operating budgets of both the town and the school district. While the town and district are very much separated in terms of formal operations and budgets, for all intents and purposes the two are inextricably linked. The North House was identified as a logical facility to use for administrative needs, given it was originally constructed as a free-standing building from the other parts of Hurlbutt and can be again easily partitioned off, creating two distinct zones of operations that will not intrude on school operations.

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