WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education’s vote this week to consolidate the town’s two existing high schools into a single new high school is the culmination of five years of discussion, presentations and research, officials said.
But it’s also just the first step in what will be another lengthy process to fund and build the project.
The Board of Education voted 8-1 Monday night to recommend combining Sheehan and Lyman Hall high schools into one building.
The new building would be roughly 298,000 square feet and will be built on the current Lyman Hall property on Pond Hill Road. The project is estimated to cost $216,057,188, with the cost to the town being $122,677,271. The state reimbursement rate is about 43%.
The district began its facilities study back in 2018 when Salvatore Menzo was the superintendent.
Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi said the concerns that came out of a survey that was taken at that time were about programming, the cost of the project and the worry about the conditions of the facilities.
“When COVID hit, we stopped, when I got hired we went back and we met with the Office of School Construction Grants and Review to update where we were,” Bellizzi said. “We then went back, per their suggestion from that meeting, and re-did the study to include our elementary schools.”
Silver, Petrucelli & Associates conducted a new study. The Board of Education held two public forums in January and had many discussions as a board about this topic. As a result, the board members shared their thoughts at the Monday meeting regarding where they stood on the future of Lyman Hall and Mark T. Sheehan high schools.
“I know it’s not a popular idea to bring those two schools together, but I do think, and while I do have concerns about the transportation, I do think we have to look at the overall picture, the benefits, the pros and the cons and right now, I’m having a hard time supporting a two school system at this point when it comes to our high schools,” said Donna Regan, chair of the board’s operations committee.
Kathy Castelli, vice chairperson of the board’s operations committee, also brought up transportation, as the building will be built on the Lyman Hall site. She said she requested data for future bus runs.
“We currently have a 42 minute (bus) run, it’s probably one of the elementary schools and the longest run if we merge for Sheehan it will be a 45 minute run,” Castelli said. “I think the high schoolers can stand a three minute ride longer than the little kids can.”
Another issue that Castelli brought up was current building usage, as enrollment has gone down over the years.
According to the Facilities Study Question and Feedback Message that Bellizzi sent out to the district’s community on Dec. 9, student enrollment in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade declined by 964 students, a decrease of 15.4% over the last 10 years.
Currently, at Sheehan, only 59% of the building is being used.
“I cannot justify renovating a building that will only be utilizing the 59% or less if the declining enrollment projection proves to be true,” Castelli said. “That is not a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Bellizzi also referenced the idea of enrollment declining and as a result of that, she mentioned some classes at both high schools have not run. She shared that from an educational standpoint, combining the high schools will be the best option, in her opinion
“We don’t have at both high schools enough students to maintain (the classes), so then we don’t run those classes, so we end up canceling some of the courses or classes that we’d like to run,” Bellizzi said. “We’re not able to provide that equitable programming at both of our high schools.”
Ray Ross, board member, was the only member that voted no in support of combining the two high schools. He started off his comments by saying that the district was lucky to have two smaller schools during the pandemic.
“The student body needed so much more help that was available to them on a personal basis, not necessarily by the administration, but by the staff,” Ross said.
Ross then brought up sports and how if the town has one high school, they can add some more sports teams, but he isn’t sure if those sports would be of interest to the kids.
“I just can’t in all conscience vote for one great big school,” Ross said.
Board of Education Chair Tammy Raccio told the Record-Journal that the Monday night meeting was originally scheduled to take place in-person in the Town Council Chambers. However, due to the snow, the board meeting was changed to take place virtually, via Google Meet.
“We changed (the meeting) on Friday to comply with the FOIA rules on public meetings based on the weather predictions,” Raccio said. “Unfortunately we couldn't reschedule it to (Tuesday night) at Town Council chambers because there's a Town Council meeting (Tuesday night). By charter we have to have our budget letter to the Mayor by March 1 so we couldn't push the meeting further.”
There were some technical issues with the public comment link, but two Wallingford residents shared their thoughts on the facilities study, both in support of wanting to keep two high schools.
Melanie Rossacci sent in a letter to the Board of Education, which Marla Roscoe, secretary of the board, read aloud.
“I understand how important this decision really is to the future of our town,” Rossacci wrote. “I have been struck by the amount of emphasis on cost, cost savings, reimbursement rates, penalties et cetera and the lack of attention being paid to what negative effects converting to a mega high school environment may have on our kids, especially post-COVID.”
Since the board voted in favor of moving forward with consolidating the high schools into one building, the next step is for the board to go to the Town Council.
“Last night’s vote will now bring the consolidated high school proposal to the Wallingford Town Council for its consideration,” Bellizzi wrote in a letter sent out to the district community. “Should the Town Council support the board’s decision, the district will issue a request for proposals for the development of architectural specifications needed to submit an application for state funding.”
Councilor Jason Zandri said he has to do research before he decides whether to support the board’s decision.
“I think we as a town have got to come to a realization that we need to do something,” Zandri said. “This is the direction the board of ed is choosing. As part of that outline we’ve got to see where the numbers fall as far as what’s the best thing financially for the town, but giving equal weight, we’ve got to also try to take into consideration what would the best thing be for the students that are going to be attending the schools in the future.”
Bellizzi also wrote in the letter that if the Town Council supports the decision to consolidate the high schools into one building, the details will be subject to further study.
“The results of this study will again be shared with the Board and the Town Council for their consideration,” Bellizzi wrote.
Town Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni recognized that the Board of Education has been working to come to a decision for many years.
“I think that a lot of information was reviewed and a lot of thought has gone into the decision,” Cervoni said.