CHESHIRE – As the town moves forward with its expansive school modernization plan, the need to maintain all current school buildings remains.
That was the message communicated to members of the Town Council last week by School District Chief Operating Officer Vincent Masciana, as he guided councilors through the district’s five-year capital expenditure request.
Over the five-year capital budget, the school district is requesting approximately $32.5 million. According to Masciana, the biggest components would be for window replacement work at the schools (28% of total funds); roofing, paving, sidewalk work, and other upgrades (21%); and cafeteria improvements (14%).
The request for the coming year is approximately $2.6 million, Masciana explained, which was pared down from an original budget of $5.6 million.
The largest single item for the first year is $650,000 to replace the fire alarm system at Dodd Middle School, which is the oldest such system in the district. Because the cost would exceed the $500,000 threshold that requires a referendum, the item would have to receive voter approval before moving forward.
Masciana started his presentation on May 25 by highlighting the overall age of Cheshire school buildings, informing councilors that the average age is approximately 71 years. The “newest” building is Highland School, which is now over five decades old.
The recent operating budget passed by the council allocates $80.66 million to the Board of Education, approximately $4 million of which will be dedicated to maintenance, Masciana said. Of that, 33% will be earmarked for maintenance and repairs, with the rest directed towards services such as cleaning, utilities and heating.
Budget Committee Chair David Borowy questioned whether it would make sense for some of the maintenance requests in the five-year plan to be folded into future phases of the school modernization plan.
Councilor Sylvia Nichols had similar concerns, saying that she would be leery of committing to major improvement projects at schools that might either be torn down or dramatically refurbished.
“This is the dilemma that we’ve had and will continue to have … at what point do you say, ‘This has to be done’ as opposed to, ‘We can wait’?” responded Masciana.
Masciana said that the district focuses on repairing or replacing facility roofs that are considered in either poor of fair condition. The roof at Doolittle School, which is slated to be repaired in the near future, is categorized as being in “fair” condition at the moment.
“That’s the dilemma that we have. Are we going to renovate Doolittle? When?” he asked. “When do we make the decision that, yep, we need to replace the roof? If we renovate as new, what’s the likelihood we are going to change the footprint (in the future) and require the roof system to be replaced? I don’t know.”
Masciana told councilors that the school district was holding off on any requests related to the schools that are expected to be replaced during Phase One of the school modernization project — Norton, Chapman, and Darcey Schools.
Councilor John Milone brought up the issue of safety at schools. In light of the recent mass shooting in Texas, Milone asked if the school district had made necessary improvements to the schools, since no additional money for safety had been requested in the capital budget.
Masciana said the district still has money allocated towards improvements, and that grant funding is likely available, which will help reimburse the town for approximately $800,000 of work completed in the area of safety. Over the summer, “person traps” were installed at Cheshire High School, Doolittle, Highland Schools, and Dodd Middle Schools, in addition to previous work done to replace exterior doors at school facilities, upgrade all video systems, including allowing for direct access to the feed by the Cheshire Police Department.
“We’re in good shape, I think,” he said.
The council will continue discussing the five-year capital plan for each municipal government department over the next few weeks. Borowy explained that referendum items cannot be voted upon until August, however the overall proposal can be approved in June.