SOUTHINGTON — As discussion surrounding the future of the town’s elementary schools continues, a coalition of parents is advocating to keep Flanders School open.
Architecture and civil engineering firm SLAM Collaborative presented its elementary facilities survey last month. Three of the four options put forward involve the renovation of several of the elementary schools and the complete closure of Flanders.
The school was deemed unfit for reconstruction or renovation like the other schools, primarily due to its age and construction as well as its location. School board members have made no determination as to what course of action they wish to pursue, though they must present plans to the state before June 30 if they wish to get grant money for the project by December. Applying after that date will put them in limbo for state support until December of the following year.
Several residents who spoke at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting live on Hitching Post Drive, the road that runs just behind Flanders, and expressed their concerns about how the closure would impact Flanders students as well as the future of the property once the school is closed.
“Flanders is home,” said Melissa Belanger. “Just knowing the different scenarios that are in the process and knowing what could happen, it’s upsetting. I don’t want my children to have to be redistricted, they love Flanders, they walk to school. Flanders is a home away from home.”
Belanger also cited concerns with before and after school care, wondering if those factors had been considered as a potential impact of the school’s closure on nearby residents.
“Three of the four plans close Flanders,” said Ryan Dumond, a resident of Hitching Post Drive whose children attend Flanders. “The concern is the capacity in, say, 10 years is going to grow to nearly 83%. As we all know there’s a lot of construction in our area – Flanders, Hitching Post, Flanders St. – whereas Kelley will go down by 10%. … So as I see the growth in the area, it’s around the Flanders area. And we’re fortunate to have Hatton and Thalberg close by, and I’m not here to say Flanders over Kelley, but I would hope that all the costs associated with all the scenarios are shared with the residents and we have a bit more time to do a little bit more analysis.”
Superintendent Steven Madancy noted that it was difficult to provide a strict cost analysis of the different plans. Renovations would be ongoing over the next several years, so calculating the price of materials with any degree of accuracy would be difficult.
The public library construction project, currently in the planning phase, faced a similar issue. The town budgeted and received voter approval for $17 million in spending with plans for a 30,000-square-foot building. Those plans quickly had to be downsized as material prices rose. SLAM Collaborative will still be calculating the potential costs of the different plans, but the numbers will be tentative.
For parents who have additional questions about the ongoing process, the school system added a “submit a question” button on the main page of its website, as well as links to accompanying videos and documents about the ongoing facilities project.
Sean Carson, a member of the school board, questioned whether or not the state offered guidance or the potential for grant money for the project. Madancy noted that the state said the district should proceed with what it feels is best in regard to renovation or entirely new construction for its elementary schools.
Madancy said district officials had a good meeting with representatives from the state Department of Administrative Services, but added that the person they had spoken to was dismissed shortly after their talks, leaving some uncertainty as to how best to proceed and how much they could receive from the state.
“That’s something we as a district-wide facilities committee, we do have to talk about in terms of the danger of proceeding with the unknown,” Madancy said. “As we know what happened with districts that did proceed last year, we purposely tabled it because of the uncertainty at the state, and instead went with the athletic facilities referendum. But what did happen was many of those schools now had to go back and get some legislative favors, for lack of a better term, because the reimbursement rates weren’t what they were promised.”
Some members of the board questioned whether or not the idea to close Flanders, while proceeding with new construction at schools like Kelley, was a good idea. Vice Chair Joseph Baczewski expressed a desire to keep schools like Flanders nestled in local neighborhoods, saying it’s an overall positive for the local area.
“I would rather see us, as a community, put our money into an elementary school that’s nestled into a neighborhood where we can still get that good suburban feel,” Baczewski said. “I think there’s a lot of parents that take advantage of that.”
He noted that the school could temporarily close and students be bused elsewhere while they construct a new building on the site, but the board didn’t make a determination at the meeting if officials would proceed with an alternate approach to keeping Flanders open.