Town leaders sound off on school project

Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield

The opinions of the chief elected officials in Prospect and Beacon Falls on the upcoming school referendum may prove indicative of the way their constituents will vote.

Prospect’s Mayor Robert Chatfield enthusiastically supported the project while Beacon Falls’ newly-elected First Selectman Gerard Smith had reservations.

Historically, Beacon Falls voters have reacted less favorably to school referendums than Prospect voters.

Chatfield urged Prospect residents to vote in favor of the project, which would build a new elementary school in Prospect, renovate Laurel Ledge in Beacon Falls, and move the Region 16 Board of Education central office to Algonquin School.

“I’m supporting this referendum 100 percent,” Chatfield said.

Chatfield mentioned improved security at Laurel Ledge, which will enclose its many disparate buildings, as one of the reasons he will be voting for the project. Chatfield also said he hoped both Laurel Ledge and the new Prospect school would have generators to power the whole building so they could be used as emergency shelters and sprinkler systems in case of fire. He said the projects would not affect any neighborhoods or town roads.

Chatfield said he has been familiar with all the schools over the years, from his own days at Community School, to running the district’s busses, to frequent visits as mayor. He said both Community and Algonquin school are antiquated.

“I’ve seen them get older and older and Algonquin School is dreary and dungy and kids are still going to school in the cellar,” Chatfield said.

Smith said he still needs more information before making a decision on whether to support the Region 16 building project.

Smith said his primary concern is the financial impact of the project and whether all the proposed repairs are necessary.

Smith said that Beacon Falls taxpayers cannot afford the $7.9 million portion of the project they will have to cover. Prospect taxpayers will contribute $11.8 million.

However, Chatfield felt that the high state reimbursement rate coupled with historically low interest rates and construction costs make now the best time to start such a project. He pointed out that the towns won’t start paying off the 20-year bond for another two years.

“The more we delay, the more the cost is going to be,” Prospect Town Council Chair Tom Galvin said.

Chatfield said the district would save on operating costs with more energy-efficient buildings and having all Prospect elementary students in one building.

“It’s not like when we built the high school and had to start from scratch,” Chatfield said.

In Prospect, some of the costs of the building will be offset by growth in the grand list, according to Chatfield. Specifically, Chatfield expects a new Yankeegas pipeline to add $5 million to $6 million to the grand list next year.

Smith questioned whether it was wise to move the Board of Education offices to Algonquin School. He said continuing the current lease or finding a new space to lease would be cheaper than rebuilding Algonquin School, at a cost of $2.4 million. He thought the district should leave Algonquin to Prospect and sell Community School in the open market.

“Somebody missed the ball there and I don’t understand how that happened,” Smith said.

A deed restriction on Algonquin school prevents it from being sold on the open market.

“Even if they abandoned that, there’s nothing they could do with that anyways,” Galvin said.

Galvin said the district would have to spend $1 million on abatement to give the building away for nothing. Since the building originally belonged to Prospect, he said the town would get it back by default. Meanwhile, if Prospect voters decide to buy Community School, they would have to pay fair market prices. At last evaluation, the school was worth about $2.8 million, so Beacon Falls would get about 40 percent, or $1.1 million.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerard Smith

Smith felt the project should focus on the basics.

“They need to build a school. There’s no doubt they have to replace Algonquin School. They have to do some renovations and some work over at Laurel Ledge. Do they have to build the ball fields?” Smith said.

Beacon Falls Selectman Chris Bielik jumped in to defend the inclusion of ball fields at the new Prospect school. He said there is double and triple scheduling on the fields, with teams sharing practice fields.

“There’s a crying need for more open space for the youths of this town to be able to use ball fields and there’s not enough of them,” Bielik said.

Region 16 School Facilities Director Dave Langdon said the building committee will decide the exact school specifications once the referendum is passed. They don’t have to spend all the money that was authorized. However, he said, if the ball fields aren’t put in now, the district won’t get any state reimbursement if they decide to build fields in the future.

Smith said the Board of Education failed to answer pointed questions during a two and half hour public hearing on the plan.

During the public hearing, Smith said he asked whether there was a plan B if the referendum didn’t pass and whether the board had considered a metal roof for the new school, among other questions.

“There were some many questions asked by a variety of people, and concerns, but the bottom line was, nothing was addressed. At their meeting, zero was discussed. All they did was set a referendum date,” Smith said.

The board will have one last chance to answer some of the questions at another presentation of the plan Monday night. At the Board of Selectmen’s request, Beacon Falls Board of Education members promised to hold one last public presentation Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. in Woodland Regional High School’s auditorium.