CHESHIRE — School capacity was the main topic of conversation at a joint Town Council and Board of Education meeting this week.
As the town has continued to review ways in which it can overhaul its school buildings, projections indicate that in roughly two years, most of Cheshire’s schools will be at or exceeding capacity and will need additional support trailers or other expansion options.
So far, the town has entertained two modernization plans – Scenario 6 and Scenario 2a – which were presented back in April by the School Modernization Committee.
Phase One of Scenario 6, offered by the SMC as the primary option, would cost the town approximately $159.4 million to complete, while Phase One of Scenario 2a is estimated to cost $160 million.
Scenario 6 focuses on the creation of two new elementary schools in the north and south end of towns, to replace Norton and Chapman Schools, as well as the demolition of Darcey School. Subsequent phases would include upgrades to all other school buildings and is estimated to cost the town, after state reimbursements, between $258 and $329 million to complete over a period of years.
Phase One of Scenario 2a would focus on the building of a new sixth through eighth grade middle school, and the razing of Chapman School, with a new elementary school building being built on the existing property.
Currently, the council has been focused on Scenario 6.
“We want to keep in mind that when we are considering these plans, that we take into consideration the expansion of the school and if and when we need expansion space,” Council Chairman Rob Oris said. “Our enrollment projections suggest that, in either of the scenarios that were brought forward, that we’re going to be up in the 90% (capacity) and up based on enrollment projections, so clearly we need to make sure we have expansion (options).”
Oris went on to explain that the state will only allow a school to be built if capacity is estimated to be at 90% at the time of completion.
“The state will not allow you to overbuild today, (based on) potentially what might happen 10 years down the road (with enrollment),” Oris continued. “...But obviously we want to make sure that we can expand those buildings relatively easily down the road if in fact we need the capacity.”
Chuck Warrington, representative of the project managing company Colliers International, explained that his group took expansion into consideration when looking at test fit sites – the potential locations for two new elementary schools proposed under Scenario 6. Colliers has mentioned the Casertano property at the intersection of Jarvis and Marion Roads as a potential location for one of the new buildings.
Warrington suggested that the council and Board of Education should track enrollment projections year-to-year to be able to accurately predict which schools might need to be expanded once the new facilities are built.
Councilor Jim Jinks, who has voiced concerns about capacity since the beginning of the school modernization process, pointed out that there were already some discrepancies in the enrollment predictions.
“The projection that we got last fall – the first year projection we received for the elementary level – was for 2,185 students and this year we’re at 2,214,” he began. “In the first year we’re already exceeding that high-end projection we got...we already seem to be exceeding what we were just given as projections.”
Jinks, who presented his own plan over the summer that focused on creating two middle schools and one new elementary school, also brought up the fact that a number of new developments are planned for the north end, meaning enrollment numbers may even go higher.
“If we go forward with Scenario 6, Doolittle (School) is just over 100% capacity, the two new schools... will be at 90-92%, I guess my question is if we are already exceeding these projections...shouldn’t we be building and planning for that?” he asked Warrington.
Jinks went on to explain that while he understands the state will not allow for the town to “overbuild,” he believes officials should account for higher-than-expected numbers.
“We’ve had an expert who’s (completed the enrollment projections) for us. We’re not the experts,” said Oris. “...We’re limited to what we can build and seek reimbursement for on parameters for what the state sets...I understand Mr. Jinks concern...but, other than having a crystal ball, I’m not sure what we do. We’ve relied on experts and we’re doing it the best way we can...I’m not quite getting Mr. Jinks’ argument here, but the facts are that these are not super-sized schools.”
Oris explained that he has received feedback from some members of the public who would like the town to focus on the construction of a new middle school, but the enrollment projections for those grade levels would need to be at almost 1,200 student capacity in order to justify the construction.
“All I am trying to say is how do we plan for being at 92-93% capacity?” responded Jinks. “I’m not suggesting we build a school to be oversized. I am just making sure that we will be right-sized. “
The council agreed to take a closer look at the enrollment projections for Scenario 6. Another joint meeting with the BOE is expected, the date for which has yet to be announced.