Public airs concerns over Region 16 school project

An artistic rendering of the proposed new elementary school in Prospect. CONTRIBUTED

BEACON FALLS — Financial concerns dominated much of the talk after Region 16 schools officials presented their plan for a three-part, multi-million school building project to the public.

“You’re playing with fire in this economy,” said Beacon Falls resident Joe Pavlik during a public hearing on the project Nov. 16 at Woodland Regional High School.

The project consists of building a new elementary school in Prospect to replace Community and Algonquin schools, major renovations to Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls, and turning Algonquin School into the new district office.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $46.7 million. The district is expected to be reimbursed for 68 percent of the costs by the state, leaving Prospect and Beacon Falls to cover roughly $19.7 million. The cost will be divided between the towns using the same ratio as the school budget with Prospect covering about 60 percent and Beacon Falls about 40 percent. Prospect’s share is estimated at $11.8 million, leaving Beacon Falls to pay for the remaining $7.9 million.

According to figures presented at the hearing and based on grand lists as of October, the project is estimated to increase the mill rate by 1.28 mills or about $127 for a house valued at $100,000 for both towns.

Several of the roughly three dozen people who turned out for the hearing raised concerns over the state potentially lowering its reimbursement for the project.

“I think you’re taking a chance on the reimbursement,” former First Selectman Susan Cable said.

There’s no guarantee that the 68 percent reimbursement rate will be the same by the time the school district submits the necessary paperwork to the state late next spring.

The project is set to go to a referendum on Dec. 20, prior to the legislature’s next regular session. The possibility exists that the legislature could change how it calculates reimbursement on school projects. If the project passes in December and the state lowers its reimbursement to the district after it has passed, the towns could be left to make up the difference.

“That’s where the concern is here,” Cable said.

While some were apprehensive about moving forward, Superintendent of Schools James Agostine contended that now is the time to strike.

He was confident that in a couple of years the state will be dropping its reimbursement levels on school projects. Agostine felt the expectation of reduced reimbursement in the future coupled with low construction costs and a low bond rate of 1.5 percent made now the best time for this project.

“The time is now,” he said. “The time is now because the state is clearly going to renege on the reimbursement rates in the next couple of years.”

Not everyone viewed the matter in the same light as Agostine.

“I’m looking at the glass half empty,” Pavlik said. “We’re still in a very depressed economy.”

The driving factors behind the project are a number of problems with Algonquin, Community, and Laurel Ledge schools.

Algonquin, which was built about 60 years ago, has no gym or media center. There are moisture problems at Community School, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Community School’s roof also needs to be replaced, according to school officials.

Aside from the physical problems at Algonquin and Community schools, Agostine said the largest problem is that the district can’t house all of the elementary school students in Prospect in one school.

“The worst part of the problem is we have a fractured school community,” Agostine said.

An artistic rendering of what the courtyard at Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls could look like after renovations. CONTRIBUTED

The planned 85,630-square-foot, pre-K through fifth grade school would be built on a 49-acre site at 75 New Haven Road in Prospect, known as the Tallmadge Hill Road property. The proposed new school carries the largest price tag of the project at an estimated $36.6 million.

The proposed school will be a two-story, chevron-shaped building, which is designed to accommodate future expansion. At the heart of the school will be shared facilities, including a media center and the main office, with two wings branching off from the center. One wing will be one-story and house the pre-K and kindergarten classes. The other wing will be two stories for the second through fifth grade classes.

At Laurel Ledge, the problems range from a slew of deferred maintenance to safety issues posed by the open, campus-style setting of the school.

The plans for the school include building new corridors to connect all of the buildings, along with adding one science and one music classroom and two new bathrooms.

While there will be some new construction at the school, the bulk of the estimated $7.75 million worth of work to be done at Laurel Ledge comes from renovations to the school. The most intensive work will be done on the school’s bathrooms, which aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are as old as the school, which was built in 1953.

Originally, the plan was to liquidate Community and Algonquin schools once the new school in Prospect is built. However, a deed restriction requires the Algonquin school property to only be used for educational, recreational or town purposes.

Agostine said the town of Prospect has expressed interest in buying Community School. With the deed restriction on Algonquin, school officials turned their attention to converting the school into a new district office.

This design shows how Algonquin School in Prospect will be turned into a new district office for Region 16. CONTRIBUTED

As part of the project, the two-story wing of Algonquin would be demolished and replaced with parking. The remaining portion will be renovated for office space with an all-purpose room for school and community events. The annex at the school would be saved for future use.

The board currently leases office space, which Agostine described as “very inefficient,” for about $56,000 a year for its district office. The cost to convert Algonquin into the district office is estimated at $2.4 million, with the majority of the costs coming from demolishing and abating the two-story wing.

If everything goes has planned, construction at Laurel Ledge and the new school would begin in the spring of 2013 and be finished in August of 2014. Work on the district office project would start in July of 2014 and take about six months to complete.

School board sets referendum date

After a nearly two hour public hearing, the Region 16 Board of Education scheduled the referendum on the proposed $46.7 million school project for Tuesday, Dec. 20.

“I would let the voters determine where we’re going from here,” board member Robert Hiscox said.

The project consists of building a new elementary school in Prospect to replace Community and Algonquin schools, major renovations to Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls, and turning Algonquin School into the new district office.

Vice Chair Priscilla Cretella was the only one to oppose holding the referendum for Dec. 20. She felt that having the referendum so close to Christmas was not good timing.

The earliest the referendum could be held is on Sunday, Dec. 18 according to Superintendent of Schools James Agostine. The board was originally targeting a date in early December to hold the vote. But the process of moving the project forward was set back due to the prolonged power outages following the October 29 nor’easter.

While Cretella felt Dec. 20 wasn’t the best date, other board members expressed concerns about holding the vote in January due to the increased potential for inclement weather.