Future of school project lies in voters’ hands

This conceptual design by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows what the proposed new elementary school in Prospect could look like. CONTRIBUTED

On Tuesday voters from Beacon Falls and Prospect will head to the polls to determine the fate of the proposed, three-part $46.7 million school building project.

The project consists of building a new pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school in Prospect to replace Community and Algonquin schools, major renovations to Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls, and renovating Algonquin School to make the school the new district office.

In the eyes of Region 16 school officials, the project presents an opportunity to not only improve the district, but to erase years worth of mounting problems in one shot.

“One fell swoop we’re going to fix everything, and it’s going to be good for years and years to come,” Superintendent of Schools James Agostine said.

The largest part of the project is a new 85,630-square-foot, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school in Prospect.

The district has tried several times in recent history to build a new elementary school in Prospect to replace Community and Algonquin schools, but each effort failed to gain enough public support.

School officials contend a new school is sorely needed in Prospect due to a slew of problems at Algonquin and Community schools, some of which are large issues that will have to be fixed sooner or later.

At Community School, according to Agostine and Hugh Potter, the school board’s business manager, the windows and heating system will need to be replaced, and four portable classrooms, which were added onto to the school to accommodate a growing student population, are reaching the end of their useful life.

The school will also need a new roof. Potter said the district recently got an estimate of $35 per square foot to replace the roof, which would put the cost at over $1 million.

At Algonquin School, there are currently a number of issues that violate code.

Tracey Scott, vice president of the Algonquin/Community PTO, recently rattled off a laundry list of code violations at the school, which included a lack of a sprinkler system, a septic system that is underneath the parking lot, no phones in the classrooms, and a lack of handicap accessibility.

Scott felt that many people in Prospect don’t truly understand why the schools need to be replaced, and if they knew all of the problems with the schools they would see the need for a new school.

“For a lot of naysayers in town I think if they had the right information they’d understand why we need a new school,” Scott said.

The crux of the work planned at Laurel Ledge School in Beacon Falls will be adding corridors to enclose the campus-style school. The proposal will also look to tackle deferred maintenance at the school, which includes taking down deteriorating concrete porticos that currently hang over doorways and repairing exterior wooden door jams that are decaying and insect infected.

This conceptual design by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows what the courtyard and corridors at Laurel Ledge School in Beacon Falls could look like following renovations to the school. CONTRIBUTED

The major renovations at the school will come in the bathrooms. Agostine said 80 percent of the bathrooms aren’t handicap accessible and all have the original plumbing, which dates back to 1953.

“The plumbing is in desperate need of repair,” Agostine said.

The lack of handicapped bathrooms isn’t a legal issue because the school is grandfathered in. However, Agostine said, whenever the district goes to repair the plumbing it will be required to fix the bathrooms as well.

Laurel Ledge’s roof will also need to be replaced in four to five years, at an estimated $600,000, regardless of the referendum result, Agostine said.

This drawing by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows what work will be done at Laurel Ledge School in Beacon Falls. CONTRIBUTED

The issues with the district’s central office are minor when compared to the problems at the three schools.

The district currently leases office space on New Haven Road for $56,000 a year to house its central office. Agostine said the space is not suitable for a district office. The second floor isn’t handicap accessible he said.

The plan calls for the two-story wing of Algonquin to be demolished and replaced with parking. The remaining portion of the school 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.

Turning Algonquin School into the district office is an option that came around late in the planning process and one officials feel presents a long-term solution to the district office needs and the future use of the school.

Originally, the district planned to sell Algonquin and Community schools if the project is passed and the schools are closed. However, during planning, officials discovered a deed restriction on Algonquin School that required the building be used only for school, town or recreational purposes.

Once the deed restriction was discovered, officials said, turning Algonquin into the office proved to be the cheapest option for a new district office.

Agostine said the taxpayers will be responsible for the issues facing the schools them down the road. He said the project takes care of everything at once while taking advantage of low interest rates.

This drawing by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows what the Algonquin School site would look like after the project is completed. CONTRIBUTED

“We want to move forward,” Potter said. “We want to see the project get passed.”

Educational value

Aside from the physical problems with the three schools, school officials have repeatedly said the set up of the schools present educational issues as well.

In Prospect, officials argue that splitting up the elementary school grades between the two schools is detrimental to the children’s education. Algonquin School houses the pre-kindergarten through third grade students, while fourth and fifth graders attend Community School.

“I truly believe that splitting up the pre-K through fifth grade students is not in the students’ best interest,” Algonquin Principal Lynn Patterson said.

Patterson said dividing elementary grades between two schools makes it difficult for teachers to communicate with each other or follow a student’s progress. She said the schools’ staff tries to share as much as they can, but it can be hard for teachers to leave during the day. With everyone under the same roof, teachers can easily share information simply by seeing each other in the hallways.

Patterson added the transition can also be difficult for the young students, who become attached to their teachers. Splitting up the grades, she said, doesn’t allow for strong bonds to be created with students and their parents.

“The new building would really give us an opportunity to become a true learning community,” Patterson said.

Community Principal Joe Nuzzo echoed much of Patterson’s sentiments about the issues that arise when diving up the elementary grades. He added that having all the young students in the same school provides additional opportunities for learning.

As an example, Nuzzo said when he was a fourth grade teacher his students would be reading buddies with the kindergarten students. The experience allowed for learning for both classes as well as a bonding experience, he said.

This conceptual design by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows the proposed layout for the first floor of a new elementary school in Prospect. CONTRIBUTED

“There’s a lot of opportunities for learning when you have students in a K through five school,” Nuzzo said.

At Laurel Ledge, the educational drawbacks stem from the campus-style design of the school, according to officials. Students have to move between the school’s separate buildings for different classes. Moving students, especially during inclement weather, leads to a significant loss of instructional time, officials said.

“I see a large loss of instructional time especially as the temperature gets colder,” Laurel Ledge Principal Regina Murzak said. “The younger the students, the larger the loss of instructional time is.”

Murzak said a first grade teacher at the school told her it takes between 10 and 15 minutes to get her class ready to go outside and move to a different class. On average, Murzak said students move four times a day, meaning students could lose about 40 minutes to an hour of class time a day.

During the winter months, Murzak said putting on mittens, coats and hats for a classroom full of young children takes time. She said parents know how difficult it can be to get three children ready to go out.

“Imagine a classroom of 20 children with one adult,” Murzak said. “It takes time.”

The open setting at the school raises safety concerns as well, Murzak added. She said the school has 40 exterior doors and children are walking around an open campus every day.

“I think that it’s a necessity in this day and age,” said Murzak about enclosing the school.

Financial impact

While school officials feel the project can wipe away all of the issues in the district at once and now is the time to strike with low interest rates and construction costs, the public has raised concerns over the cost of the project and the potential for the state to change its reimbursement rate to the district.

The largest cost of the project is the new school, which is estimated at $36.6 million. The renovations at Laurel Ledge are expected to cost $7.75 million. It’s estimated that turning Algonquin School into the district office will cost $2.4 million.

After state reimbursement is factored in, Prospect and Beacon Falls will be left to pay roughly $19.7 million, according to school officials. 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 recent figures supplied to school officials by the board’s bond counsel, the project will cost taxpayers in both towns an additional $102 in taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value for each year over the 20-year bond. The figure is based on the current grand lists of both towns, and could fluctuate with changes in the grand lists over time.

Although the state’s reimbursement rate is anticipated at 68 percent, there’s no guarantee the rate will be the same by the time the school district submits the necessary paperwork to the state late next spring.

If the referendum passes and the reimbursement changes in the upcoming legislative session, the towns would be left to cover any difference in costs.

The consensus from school officials across the state is that it’s not a matter of if the state will change the way it factors reimbursement rate but when.

A message left with Connecticut Department of Education spokesman Mark Linabury seeking comment on the reimbursement rate issue was not returned as of press time.

From the chair

As voters prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday, Board of Education Chair Priscilla Cretella said the essence of the project is to give all students in Region 16 the same learning ability, which is very important to her. Right now, she said, the district’s physical buildings are not on the same playing field.  

“I just want to give a very equal playing field for our children,” Cretella said.

The referendum will be held on Dec. 20, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The voting place in Beacon Falls will be Laurel Ledge School, 30 Highland Ave. In Prospect, voters can cast their ballot at the Volunteer Fire Department, 26 New Haven Road.