On the evening of March 26, the New Fairfield Board of Education held a community forum on the ongoing Facilities Study that is being created for proposed construction projects at NFHS and Consolidated School. In an effort to bring the community into the discussion regarding the potential renovation projects, the board hosted a couple dozen administrators, faculty, parents, and community members for the informative and collaborative event.
Angela Cahill, an architect with QA+M, the firm the district has contracted with to complete the Facilities Study, walked the group through myriad issues facing the schools that are being considered for potential renovation. In addition, she gave examples of many school renovation projects that the firm has completed in recent years.
At New Fairfield High School the critical needs are extensive, including massive structural renovations for the auditorium, pool, locker rooms, parking lot, and elevators–to list just a handful. Plus, there are major issues with the infrastructure including the well, problems with energy efficiency in windows and insulation, and the list goes on. The district is motivated by more than simply underperformance in proposing what will be a very large-scale remodel. Instead, they are facing Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaints, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) non-compliance, the upgrade expectations of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Board to continue to qualify for accreditation, and more.
At Consolidated School, the district’s littlest learners are in a building with an extremely leaky roof, HVAC issues, major well problems, aged materials, and groundwater flooding. The need to renovate the school’s congested parking lot has been in discussion for years.
Dr. Cosentino acknowledged that the entire process of identifying issues and developing plans is on the fast track right now. “We are rushing things a little bit,” she said, explaining that the district’s grant application needs to be filed with the state by June 30. After that date, grants will not be considered until the following June. Veterans of working with the state, QA+M will be joining the district’s top administrators for an April 4 meeting with the state grants office; the group will discuss the project and alert the state to the district’s forthcoming application.
Administrators posed four questions to the community forum attendees, asking what was important to them about NF schools, what an ideal NFHS and Consolidated would look like, and how the schools might promote community use of the facilities. Attendees split into groups, compiled answers, and fed them back to the larger group. Common threads in facility vision touched on the need for safe, efficient, modernized buildings with space for versatile, collaborative work for students and staff. The need for play space at Consolidated and continuing to update vocational training spaces at NFHS also made the lengthy list. Given the dearth of large community spaces in town, attendees imagined a wealth of possibilities for community use of renovated facilities.
Now that QA+M are zeroing in on the fundamental educational specifications for the buildings, which have been developed in conjunction with administrators and faculty, and the design plans are in the works, the next steps include getting full buy-in from the NF BOE. A special meeting is planned for Tuesday, 4/9, 7:00 p.m. to introduce the educational specifications to the board. At another special BOE meeting on Tuesday, 4/23, 7:00 p.m., the administrators plan to share design concepts. With the board’s input in place, there will be community tours and reviews of designs in late April and early May. At a Tuesday, 5/7, 7:00 p.m. special BOE meeting, administrators hope to have decisions made on final designs.
There was a brief discussion about when a referendum to the town might happen and the likelihood is October. Community members in attendance remembered how close the MHHS renovation vote was (it passed by a tiny margin), and there was a general consensus that there would need to be a campaign to motivate voters to the polls. BOE Chair Peggy Katkocin pointed out that the projects are already getting buy-in from key factions in the town, especially the Permanent Buildings Committee.
Dr. Cosentino proposed that the options for going forward include either going it alone with continued band aid fixes that cost a fortune anyway and that “make no sense,” or approving mindfully-designed plans for bringing the schools into the modern age that will be completed with help in funding from the state. Given the list of OCR, ADA, and other complaints, plus constantly attending to the maintenance failures at the two schools, she says “doing nothing is not an option.”
By Sarah Opdahl