Letter: Spending money can lead to saving it

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To the editor,

In very round numbers, the total cost of Region 16’s building project is about $47 million. The approximate breakdown by component is $37 million for a new 643 pupil school (in Prospect) to replace Algonquin and Community schools, $8 million for renovations at Laurel Ledge School (in Beacon Falls) and $2 million for retrofitting the Algonquin site to become Region 16’s central office facility. Over the last decade, the region’s staffing costs (salary, pension, benefits, etc) have been trending toward 80 percent of their overall budget, leaving an ever smaller percentage available to be spent on maintaining the region’s school buildings.

I believe that the replacement school for Community (circa 1936) and Algonquin (circa 1960) is clearly a matter of when and not if. Laurel Ledge in Beacon Falls, while in much better physical condition, represents possibly the poorest original design of any school in the area. This project will connect the five separate buildings providing an enhanced learning environment and improved security for its students, while also creating a facility capable of better serving the needs of the entire Beacon Falls community. There are those in both towns who for a variety of reasons contend that this project should be defeated, reduced in scope or at least be delayed. In reality, if this effort were pushed out a year, its bottom line cost would increase by more than the amount they look to save, and there are other financial realities that must also be considered.

First, as our state legislature continues to spend more money on “other things,” the percentage of the school construction costs that they traditionally cover will continue to drop. The longer we delay, the less the state will pay so an ever larger portion of the cost would come from your local property taxes.

Second, one of the few positives coming out of the ongoing downturn in the economy is historically low interest rates. Region 16 is expected obtain funding with borrowing costs of less that 2 percent.

Third, and perhaps most critical, the cost of the actual construction (labor and material) will continue to rise. Looking back almost a decade, the estimated cost of a new 595 pupil school building in 2002 would have been $22.3 million. During another referendum in 2005, essentially the same construction effort was projected to be $28.5 million.  Today’s projection of $37 million reflects a continuation of that trend and I’m 100 percent confident that failure to act now will only end up costing both towns much more sometime down the road.

Right now, the state of Connecticut is expected to pick up about $27 million of the cost leaving about $20 million to be split between Prospect and Beacon Falls. Based on the percentage of students, Prospect’s 60 percent share will be about $12 million. I understand that this amount will be “bonded” and paid for over 20 years.

Unlike the Woodland project 10 years ago, the borrowing rate will be less than 2 percent, which will save us millions. There will also be no need to hire additional staff; in fact the consolidation of Prospect’s two older schools should logically mean some staffing reductions.

While this overall transaction is a great deal for Prospect, it is also a really good opportunity for Beacon Falls. When Region 16 does sell Community School, then Beacon Falls stands to receive about 40 percent of the ultimate sales price; and it’s currently assessed at about $2.8 million.

I personally believe we do need a new school in Prospect and that Laurel Ledge is in need some major improvements. There are some folks that are concerned that the overall cost of education is growing much faster than the rest of the economy, and I’m certainly one of them, but I also believe that the physical infrastructure is not the place to start cutting.

I’ll therefore be voting yes on this and I strongly encourage everyone to attend the region’s various information sessions or visit their website, www.region16ct.org, to find out whatever they need to know in order to make an informed decision on the Dec. 20 Region 16 School Construction Referendum.

Thomas Galvin

Chair, Town Council

Prospect