For half of the nearly three-hour August 1 public hearing on the New Fairfield proposed school buildings projects, community members were given a polished presentation that spanned the full scope of the potential projects and addressed many community concerns. Finessed since spring iterations of the presentation, this one not only delved into the problems, tiered solutions, and potential building plans, it also drove home the intention of easing taxpayer concern. Most of the approximately 100 people in the audience stayed for the entire presentation, several for an opportunity to ask questions or speak for or against the proposed projects.
Dr. Richard Sanzo, Director of Business and Operations, walked the group through the past year’s lead up to what has become the ‘Building Projects.’ He detailed each building’s state of disrepair, and went through the outside influences that led to the proposal of two new school buildings–among them Americans with Disability Act areas of non-compliance and Office of Civil Rights complaints.
Reacting to public comments that have been forwarded in the last several months, the administration was prepared to address a myriad of concerns, from how the town got to this point–short answer is underfunding the school district’s capital projects for too many years–to how taxpayers will bear sustained tax hits, the largest of which would be increases of 9.19%. In perhaps the most effective moment of the new presentation, Sanzo’s ending slide broke down the median increase for the average home–approximately $200K in New Fairfield–into daily increments of $1.57 per home per day.
Architects, Mr. Rusty Malik and Ms. Angela Cahill, of QA+M, gave a thorough recap of their work on the proposed building projects over the last several months, from reviewing old and new physical assessments of the buildings and providing detailed analyses of building/renovation options to the creation of design mockups and coordination of communication with NF administrators to the community and state officials.
Sanzo and the architects chimed back and forth, explaining that doing nothing to repair the two buildings is not an option. In comparing costs, they laid out a compelling case for new buildings, given the reimbursement opportunities from the state. They pointed out that new buildings are typically given a lower reimbursement rate, but Consolidated would be reimbursed at a higher rate of 37.86%, as the proposed new school’s attachment to Meeting House Hill School would allow it to be considered a renovation. They explained that the high school would be reimbursed at the lower rate of 27.86%, but that this number is far higher than the reimbursements that would be afforded the town if it opts to pursue fixes to the existing building through capital improvement projects.
Sanzo and Malik expounded on all the pros of building versus all the cons of renovation, with the impacts to the children’s education and potential safety being the most emphasized arguments. Malik explained that renovation through capital improvements create snowball effect projects for builders and architects. He logically presented various costly scenarios that would likely occur in attempting to tackle the schools’ issues through repair. In presenting the financial comparisons of new buildings to renovation, the capital improvement estimates are remarkably high, even higher than the new buildings, which Malik and Sanzo explained as being due to the assumptions for “unknowns,” the aforementioned snowball effect costs, and the possible inflation of materials and labor over time.
A good overview of the projects’ tax ramifications was given, with a clear view of the taxpayers near future costs for the $80 million total, which would have a 20- to 25-year bonding. The long tail of expenses for projects like these may surprise some taxpayers. For example, Sanzo noted that on the day of this hearing the town had finally fully paid off financing for the would-be demolished Consolidated School.
Community members took to the podium to ask a variety of questions, asking if the schools would incorporate solar panels and air conditioning–the answer was yes to both–plus there were questions surrounding the auditorium, given the opportunity for the community to use the space. It was confirmed that the cost estimates included all necessary accoutrements to make the auditorium fully functioning, for school and community use, including a loading dock.
Resident Eric Alviti announced that he is heading a new Political Action Committee to fundraise and gain support for approval of the buildings projects. He explained that he is excited about the projects and said, “we need the investment in New Fairfield.”
Several residents, from teen to senior citizen-age spoke about apprehension regarding tax increases, to which Superintendent Pat Cosentino replied that they completely understand that people have different levels of economic comfort, and that town officials are continuing to develop plans to help defray costs, but that the schools’ issues need to be addressed.
One parent questioned whether the single cafeteria that’s planned for the would-be joined elementary school is adequate for the increased number of students. She was assured that there is room and that the space is underutilized at this point.
Another parent questioned whether the district’s talking points regarding New Fairfield needing to be competitive with neighboring schools is the right message, likening it to a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.
A parent asked what the backup plan is if the buildings project is voted down. Cosentino explained that right now the backup plan would be to start bonding small projects which she described as “an inefficient use on New Fairfield taxpayer money.” To get said bonds, the town would need to go to referendum again, a costly endeavor.
When asked (by this reporter) whether the town would consider adding a tiered question to No votes in the upcoming referendum, in order to gain buy-in simultaneously for renovation projects, thereby negating the need for another referendum, the answer was no. Administrators stated they feared public confusion if the questions are not presented as simply as possible, needing no room for interpretation. Plus, for now it appears that the school’s approach is wholly focused on creating and converting Yes votes, rather than fully considering next steps if the referendum is voted down.
The two projects will be split on the ballot–Consolidated Yes, No and High School Yes, No. Sanzo said of the referendum questions, “The community will be asked to approve the full cost of the project, before state reimbursement.” The state reimbursement figures will not be listed within the question.
In next steps, there will a Buildings Tour on August 21 at 6pm, starting at Consolidated, and a second Public Hearing on September 19 at 7pm, NFHS Auditorium. There are plans to set a date for the referendum at a town meeting on September 26, and the referendum will likely occur on October 5.
By Sarah Opdahl