CHESHIRE — The first meeting of the committee tasked with assessing the town's public school buildings — and over the next 10 months developing a plan for their future use —was more about introductions and less about beams and concrete.
Ultimately, the 15-member committee’s plan for Cheshire's eight school buildings — the oldest of which is 107, the newest of which is 48 — could recommend a combination of renovations, new construction, consolidations and closures. Monday night's meeting allowed for members to introduce themselves and their backgrounds, and provided a brief overview of what the group aims to accomplish.
Town Council Chairman Rob Oris Jr., not technically a member of the committee, served as temporary chairman for the first meeting. He made clear it will be up to the committee to decide the direction it takes.
Oris ensured there would be “complete transparency in the process.”
“This is really going to take a village, folks, and I mean that,” Oris said.
Oris noted the Town Council had received 40 applications from Cheshire residents seeking to join the committee. Oris said the members were ultimately selected because they represented a “diverse group of people with different areas of expertise.”
The mission statement of the new committee, which was established earlier this fall, states the group has been established “to consider available options to upgrade the school facilities, which may include new construction, renovating existing facilities, closing and repurposing facilities and other, creative, viable proposals.”
The committee is tasked with developing a plan for modernizing schools to address the needs of students while also “considering the fiscal impact” of any renovations or new construction on Cheshire residents.
Committee member Matt Bowman showed up to the meeting armed with a list of questions he said he hoped would get the committee started. The questions included those related to building sizes, per pupil costs in each school, electricity and other utility costs.
Board of Education Chairwoman Kathryn Hallen responded, saying she believed much of that information was already in the previously gathered facilities master plan.
“I don't know that it's going to be difficult to put this information together,” she said.
“That information is pretty readily available,” said Vincent Masciana, chief operating officer for the Cheshire Public Schools. Masciana said committee members need to have a basic understanding of the buildings the district current operates, including how many students are in each of them.
“There’s a lot of information we need to take in, to go through... Most of us are starting from square one,” Bowman said.
A facilities master plan presented to town and Board of Education officials in 2017 stated “most of the district’s classrooms, learning spaces and common areas such as cafeterias and gymnasiums are dated and in need of upgrades.”
Voters earlier this month approved a slew of capital upgrades, including window and boiler replacements in some school buildings, but other plans to renovate, close aging school buildings and build new facilities previously failed.
Voters approved allocating $150,000 to the committee, which it can use at its discretion to hire consultants, engineers or other experts as it develops a plan.
“You may want to consider what consultants you may need to get this process going,” Oris said, recommending one of the group advertise a request for proposals from potential consultants as one of its early actions.
The next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 2, is when the committee will decide its new leadership.
According to the committee's mission statement, the deadline to present its recommendation to the Town Council and Board of Education is Sept. 15, 2020. Its recommendations are not binding.
Peter Talbot, a Town Council representative on the group, noted its charge is “intentionally ambiguous and we'll see where it takes us.”
Committee member Rich Gusenberg said the group should be “very care in talking about closing” school buildings at this point in the discussions. “We should not be taking any firm stances,” he said.
Bowman countered that the group should “be up front with people,” especially if early in the process it looks like the committee may lean toward recommending redistricting of school boundaries or recommending possible school building closures.
Should the committee decide the town needs new school buildings, some state funding for new school construction is available, via Connecticut's School Construction Grant Program, which provides that funding on a reimbursement basis. The state Department of Adminsitrative Services oversees that program.
The percentage Cheshire and other communities would receive as reimbursement for new school construction during the current school year has so far not been reported. The state Department of Education reported Cheshire's reimbursement rate during the previous 2017-2018 school year had been just under 44% of a school construction project's total cost. For new school construction that reimbursement rate was 36.43%.
Hallen noted it would be unlikely the committee would put forth a plan that would meet the state School Construction Grant program's June 30 annual deadline to include a proposed construction project for the next funding cycle.