Weston schools say no to sharing facilities with the town

SCH-sign-smallThe town will have to look elsewhere to solve its space problems. That was the message from the school board’s Facilities Committee after last week’s meeting on school safety and infrastructure.

“I don’t think the schools can be the answer to the town’s space issue,” said Ellen Uzenoff, school board vice chairman and the chairman of the Facilities Committee. Her statement brought a round of applause from members of the public at the meeting held Wednesday, Jan. 22, as well as agreement from the other two committee members, Elise Major and Sara Spaulding.

Ms. Uzenoff said she appreciates — and supports — the town’s need for more space for things like land use offices, the police and communications departments, Parks and Recreation and other town offices. “I think this town needs to support a town project,” she said. But, she added, it’s time for the schools to “encourage the town to move forward with their own planning” without assuming there is empty space at the schools the town could fill.

First Selectman Gayle Weinstein was disappointed. “After a year-plus working on a global solution that integrates the town and the schools working as one collaborative unit — I’m very frustrated,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Feeling it would have been beneficial to both the town and schools, she would have preferred that the school board kept an open mind and did a risk assessment before making a decision, Ms. Weinstein said.

“Regardless, the reality is they are not comfortable having town offices in school buildings … It’s their decision and I have to respect it,” she said, adding that at least “it does give us the ability to move forward” with planning.

The process

At the Jan. 22 meeting, the committee got an overview of the many options that were vetted over the course of the past year by Jo-Ann Keating, director of finance and operations, Dan Clarke, director of facilities, Superintendent Colleen Palmer, and an architect from Silver/Petrucelli  and Associates.

Dr. Palmer said that in October 2012, the school district recognized that enrollment was declining at such a rate that the schools had space that could possibly be “repurposed.” At the same time, the district knew the Town Hall Annex portable building was reaching the end of its useful life.

The annex currently houses the district’s business, purchasing, budget, facilities management, food service, and technology departments. The town uses the building for its land use and social services departments.

The discussion changed, however, after the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December 2012.

Decisions were put on hold while a more comprehensive space needs study was commissioned that would, as Ms. Uzenoff put it, “look at the unused space … through the lens of safety and security.”

The district also waited for the state School Safety Infrastructure Council to release its report on recommended school security standards. The draft of that report was released last week; it is expected to be finalized by July 1.

Dr. Keating explained that the report says school districts that want to do any construction projects must first conduct a risk assessment focusing on eight major areas: school perimeter; parking access; recreational areas; communication systems; school building exterior; school building interior; roofs; and other areas. Within each of these area, the district should assess things like access, signage, lighting, and surveillance.

Dr. Keating suggested the school district is already assessing security needs based on these standards; the clarification from the state is helpful, she said.

Options

The Facilities Committee was told that dozens of options were considered when identifying space that could be repurposed. Dr. Keating narrowed it down to six for the committee to review.

For many reasons — educational flow, the need for specialized areas  like science labs and restrooms for different aged children, etc. — it was determined that Hurlbutt Elementary School is the only one of the district’s four schools that has space that might be viable.

Hurlbutt is not one central building, but rather it consists of a core building connected by long corridors to South House, East House, and North House.

The following options at Hurlbutt were considered.

1. Repurpose all of North House for non-educational purposes. This would include moving the Senior Center, all the school board and town offices currently at the annex and possibly Parks and Recreation  to North House. The second grade would move to the intermediate school in 2016-17. And, one of Hurlbutt’s other multipurpose rooms would need to be expanded to make up for the one in North House that could no longer be used by students.

2. Put certain school board offices on the second floor only of North House.

3. Repurpose all of East House for non-educational purposes. A cafeteria would be lost, and so South House cafeteria would have to be expanded. The school would lose use of the garden area in the center and the playground area. “This would be very close to instructional space, in our view,” Dr. Keating said.

4. Repurpose just part of East House.

5. Use the Central Office building for town offices and move school board offices to Hurlbutt. Dr. Keating said she feels it is an inadequate size for this purpose. In addition, the district would lose the only space it has that is not in a school building.

6. Expand the Senior Center in its current location and move some school board offices into Hurlbutt.

Narrowing down

The Facilities Committee ultimately  narrowed down the options to #2 and #6.

The East House options (#3 and #4) were immediately deemed unworkable because East House is too centrally located in the elementary school and retrofitting space there would be fairly complicated. It would also mean adding to the school, which was thought to be financially unrealistic.

The committee felt option #1 (moving all of the annex offices and the Senior Center to North House) was not ideal because it involves housing offices that are not associated with the schools. Not only would the town employees be there, but  unknown members of the public would be in the school when they did business at those offices.

“I’m just not comfortable with that,” said committee member Ms. Spaulding.

The committee members did not have as strong an objection to moving certain school district departments to the second floor of North House (option #2), as long as there was someplace where meetings with outside vendors or contractors could take place.

However, this eliminated option #5 (housing town offices in the Central Office building).

Option #6, Ms. Spaulding pointed out, is essentially the same as #2 (moving some school offices to the second floor of North House), except it proposes the possibility of also expanding the Senior Center’s current South House location.

Ms. Uzenoff clarified that any expansion of the Senior Center would be a town project, not a school one, and it would need the approval of the taxpayers.

Public comment

Members of the public at the meeting were pleased, but cautious in their optimism.

Michelle Tivy said she and other parents are still concerned they haven’t seen any cost estimates for any of the options discussed.

More importantly, though, she said, she has been raising concerns about putting adults in the schools for more than a year, and she wants to make sure the board is clear about conveying to the town its reluctance to do so. “This board really needs to just say no and tell the town the schools are for school only,” she said. “The town has to find its resources elsewhere. It just doesn’t belong in the schools.”

Katie Gregory said she hopes the district takes the state report seriously. She, too, said she has opposed mixing students with the public. “It’s frustrating that we have to keep coming back and saying we oppose commingling,” Ms. Gregory said.

She worried that the Facilities Committee members were not clear enough in their opposition to it.

“I don’t know if I can say it any more than I already have,” Ms. Uzenoff said.

“It’s abundantly clear how we feel,” Ms. Major agreed. “It’s clear we oppose commingling. I don’t know how more clear we can be.”

Next steps

Ms. Uzenoff said the Facilities Committee will discuss its recommendations with the full board, but she was not exactly sure when that discussion would take place.

She urged the community to support the town’s efforts to find or build space. “The needs of the town are great,” she said.

First Selectman Weinstein said she will reconvene the Global Facilities Committee after the budget work is mostly done, probably in about a month. “I’m hoping the Board of Ed will still participate,” she said. “We need to move forward” with decisions about where to put land use, parks and recreation, and the police department, she said. “I don’t want us to make these  decisions in a vacuum. It has to be a committee decision,” Ms. Weinstein said.

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