WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education made its pitch for closing both Mark T. Sheehan and Lyman Hall high schools in favor of a new, state-of-the-art high school on the Lyman Hall campus during a marathon Town Council meeting that lasted more than five hours
The board cited declining enrollment at both schools in choosing to consolidate the high schools.
But many parents and students don’t agree that decision. Several dozen gathered in front of Town Hall shortly before the 6:30 p.m. meeting began, bearing signs and stories in many cases about how attending a smaller high school benefited them, and how they want that same experience for their children.
“This would have broad permanent negative effects,” said Melanie Rossacci, an administrator of the Facebook group Wallingford Residents Opposed to One High School.
Students do better in smaller classes at the two high schools than they would in one larger high school, she said. Current classes number 17-21 students, while she said they are estimated to rise to 24 students per class at a consolidated school.
“Please carefully consider why school size matters, especially post-pandemic,” she said. Students are less likely to drop out and more likely to continue their education at a smaller high school, she said.
There had been talk of housing a preschool at Sheehan, she said, but that proposal quickly disappeared. That would use room at that school, she said.
"Having two smaller high schools in town is a gift," she said. "Please let us keep that gift."
Edgewood Drive resident Marsha Birkin said she bought her house in 2010, just before the Board of Education reconfigured the elementary schools. Had she known that was going to happen, she might not have bought the house, she said, and now she's against this proposal.
"There are definitely things you can do other than consolidate," she said.
Allison Weisburger said her Pond Hill Road home abuts the Lyman Hall campus. "We love having Lyman Hall in our backyard," she said, and being able to hear the activities going on there. But if a new school is built there, the blueprints show that the auditorium would be six feet from their property line. "It would look right into our bathroom," she said.
As a nurse working a late shift at Gaylord Hospital, she would definitely have trouble sleeping during the day with the building that close, she said.
"I don't want the school on top of my property," she said.
Tim Brzezinski is a teacher at Engineering and Science University Magnet School in New Haven. He's taught in small schools and schools with as many as 5,000 students, he said, and he thinks the smaller schools are better.
"We already have what is best," he said.Council uncertainty
After about an hour and a half of public comment, council members had their turn questioning school officials. It became clear that councilors weren’t sure what was being asked of them — whether the board wanted the council to vote on consolidating the schools.
Several council members said they weren't ready to do that. Councilor Christina Tatta made a motion to instruct the board not to pursue the consolidation, saying it was clear what residents want, but other council members weren't willing to do that either.
Board of Education Chair Tammy Raccio said what they wanted was the funding to take the next step in determining if building a new, larger school on the Lyman Hall campus was even feasible, but the council also declined to do that.
Several on the council said they have a problem with the location and think if they were to consolidate, a more central location is needed.
While the school officials said they could find no suitable alternative location, Councilor Vincent Testa said he had an idea where the school could go, though he said he did not want to reveal that location until he can get more information. He asked for an item to be added to a future agenda for a discussion on alternative locations.
The school board has been working on finding solutions to facility issues for years. While the middle school buildings are in worse shape than the high school buildings, the board decided to take on the high schools first, Raccio said.
In 2018 the board commissioned a study that projected that over the next 10 years, Lyman Hall enrollment would drop 19% and Sheehan decline by 23%. Both buildings had space limitations that would limit program expansion, the study found, and maintenance at both would need more investment over that time frame.
A survey done at the time, to which 2,294 responded, found that 44% of residents preferred to renovate the town’s two middle schools and two high schools at a cost of $78 million. Thirty-five percent of respondents favored renovating the middle schools and consolidating the high schools, at a cost of $120 million, and 21% preferred a three-year maintenance plan at a cost of $19 million. Because that survey was conducted five years ago, those estimates in today’s dollars would be higher.
Last year, the board undertook a facilities master planning study that reported a 1.64% decline in the town’s population between 2010 and 2020, while the state population grew by 0.27%.
Between 2012 and 2022, enrollment declined by 964 students, of which 350 were high school students, and is projected to go down another 93 students between October 2022 and October 2023, according to the study.
Lyman Hall was built in 1957. The 199,002 square foot building houses 936 students. At 217,035 square feet, Sheehan is slightly larger and it’s also newer, having been built in 1971. Its enrollment is 734 students.
The study estimates it would cost $104,474,612 to renovate Lyman Hall as new, and $113,944,813 to renovate Sheehan as new. With state reimbursement, the projects would cost Wallingford taxpayers $48,873,223 and $74,867,476 respectively.
The study could not identify an appropriately sized (defined as 20 acres plus one acre per 100 students) central site for a new high school.
If a new school were to be built on the Lyman Hall campus, the current building could continue to be used during construction, as could the site’s regional Agricultural Science and Technology Education Center, one of 19 in the state.
Eight other area districts send students to the center, at a cost of $6,823 per student. The town also receives a yearly $1,463,752 state grant. Should the center be closed, it would void an agreement with the state to operate at least through 2030 and would result in the town having to reimburse the state for its partial costs.
The Lyman Hall site would have space for athletics, parking and parent and bus drop-off areas, the study found. The site also allows for building outside of wetlands and the ability to adhere to setbacks.
Ten-year enrollment projections for high school students range from between 1,315 students to 1,562 students between the 2022-23 and 2031-32 school years, with the higher enrollments occurring earlier in the decade and declining.
A consolidated high school would be 298,000 square feet. The board cites expanding career pathways open to all high school students, increased course offerings, including electives and expanded extra-curricular activities, as advantages to a consolidated school.
“We would be able to expand our freshman (sports) teams,” Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi said. They also would be able to add clubs, service programs, and expand theater programs and jazz band, she said.
Academic offerings also could expand, she said.
“With both high schools, there isn’t as much opportunity to offer all courses,” Bellizzi said. “In one high school, we would be able to offer additional courses.”
An additional three school buses would be needed, according to the study.
The study also included estimates to renovate the current police station to be used for central offices, adult education and its Transition Academy, which would cost about $6.3 million.
The study also looked at the possibility of moving those uses to Sheehan if that school were to close.
Should the consolidation proposal be approved, the new school would open in the fall of 2028.