The Board of Finance listened to a presentation from NF School Superintendent Dr. Patricia Cosentino and Director of Budget & Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo regarding the proposed projects to rebuild the High School and build a Consolidated Early Learning Center at Meeting House Hill School.
Dr. Sanzo began the presentation by noting that over the past several months, the Board of Education had reviewed its options regarding the high school building and a Consolidated early learning center (Pre-K to 1st grade) at MHHS. He said that the State had communicated to the district that based upon the condition of the school buildings, it would only reimburse the Town for new construction, not a refurbishment. He noted that this position came as a “shock” to the administration, that previously the State had reimbursed for renovation projects.
Dr. Sanzo noted the BOE would be looking at construction of a new 143,500 square foot high school at a cost of $79,275,679 with an estimated reimbursement from the State of $19,820,047 (about 24%) for a total cost to residents of $59,455,632. He also stated that the new building would also result in operational savings each year of $125,000/yr in reduced staffing, $150,000/yr. in maintenance and energy, and a savings of capital expenditures of $125,000/yr. for the first five years.
In addition to those savings, the district, BOF Chair Wes Marsh, First Selectman Pat Del Monaco, and the Town’s state legislators will be meeting with the State again next week to discuss other possible savings/reimbursements, including a $1,312,480 space standard waiver, and a higher reimbursement of $8,897,737. This would reduce the overall cost to $49,245,415.
He also noted that the district has been placed on warning for its accreditation due to the condition of the current building.
The cost to construct a Consolidated Early Learning Academy, Dr. Sanzo stated, would be $30,147,820 with an estimated reimbursement by the State of $6,788,400 to a total cost of $23,359,420. The project would also realize annual operational savings of $350,000/yr for staffing, $75,000/yr in maintenance and energy costs, and capital improvement savings for the first 5 years of $50,000/yr. Potential additional savings could include a $281,501 standard space waiver, a demo as eligible cost of $846,682, and a higher reimbursement of $2,819,153 for a possible total cost of $19,412,084.
The project would essentially combine both elementary schools. The second grade would move into available classrooms in MHHS. The new construction on the MHHS campus would be about 45,000 square feet. The old Consolidated School building, Dr. Sanzo said, would be demolished and converted to a grass field.
According to Dr. Sanzo, if all went according to plan, the new Consolidated Early Learning Academy would be up and running for the 2023 school year, and the new high school would be occupied in 2025. The mil rate would gradually increase between fiscal years 2020-2021 and 2029-2030.
In the Board discussion that followed, BOF Chair Wes Marsh noted that his concern was how much of a tax increase taxpayers would be hit with. In his presentation, Dr. Sanzo had projections of probable mil rate increases brought about by the projects alone over ten years. Mr. Marsh noted that based on that, it appeared overall tax increases would be anywhere from 3% to 5% a year for the first five years (2020-2025).
Mr. Marsh, noting that cost estimates were based on concept designs rather than actual full-blown plans, asked what the chances were that the estimated cost of the projects might wind up being lower. Dr. Sanzo replied that it was unlikely that the estimated costs would be lower.
Dr. Cosentino stated that issues with the building were widespread. In her opinion, she noted, trying to fix items intrinsic to the structure of the school, such as the slope of the auditorium floor or the substandard elevator shaft could wind up being ineffective and more costly than a complete rebuild.
Board member Anthony Yorio noted that the problems associated with the high school were due to shortcomings in the initial design and construction. He said he felt they could not be fixed in a piecemeal fashion. In his opinion, the building served the community for 48 years and it is time to address the issues head on by constructing a new building. He noted that from the perspective of the BOF, their responsibility is to make it more affordable for taxpayers, stating that he felt the year-to-year projections presented by the district were “intimidating” to the taxpayers.
In the end, the Board voted to endorse that the project go to a referendum for voters to weigh in on it. The Board of Selectmen will discuss a referendum at its next meeting on May 23.
In other business, the Board voted to set the mil rate for the 2019-2020 fiscal year at 30.90, a 1.05% tax increase. Both the municipal and education budgets were approved in a town vote held on May 4.
The next Board of Finance meeting will be Wednesday, June 19 at 7:30pm in the Community Center on Route 37.
By Greg Slomba