A couple hundred residents filled the multipurpose room at The Sherman School on February 25 for a public forum to discuss construction options for the school. The second of three public forums, this meeting was intended to serve as a touch base with the community on the extensive Feasibility Study that is in process, plus provide an opportunity for resident feedback.
Board members gave a little insight into their thoughts for a future recommendation and residents were not shy in expressing their reservations.
Justin Hopkins, of Hartford-based Tecton Architects, presented five construction options, which ranged from $11M for an 8- to 10-year maintenance plan to over $40M for a brand-new building. Both Hopkins and BOE member Tim Laughlin said that the BOE’s recommendation will likely fall in the middle of the numbers above, opting for a renovation with additions, which range in the mid-$20M mark. At the meeting’s end, Laughlin, who served as a moderator of sorts, said “I think they are not going to recommend a maintenance over 10 years” plan. When asked about timing, and whether there is intent to make the state’s late June application deadline for construction project grants, board members were lassez faire about meeting the date. Kasey Diotte, Sherman Board of Education Chair said, “sometimes doing it right takes more time.”
Diotte began the meeting with a brief overview of how the board’s actions, and the building’s conditions, have landed the town in this position. She prefaced the overview by acknowledging that there is growing community concern regarding the plans for The Sherman School. “I just want to sort of clear the air,” she said, “The BOE has been hearing that there’s this idea out there that the BOE wants to build a brand-new school…What we do know is that we will not be recommending that we demolish this building and put up a brand-new school.” This is understandable, as much of the school is deemed ‘Good’ in the current analysis, with a couple of portions list as ‘Fair.’ The kindergarten wing is listed as ‘Poor,’ for a variety of reasons, including that it is deemed as unusable at this point. However, it was later pointed out that the board elected to seal off that potion of the building themselves.
“I’m so pleased to see a packed room,” Diotte said, following a first forum that had half the number of attendees, and a roughly 40-person town meeting that originally approved the $50K for the Feasibility Study. She was “so happy to see that you are engaged in the process.” Ms. Diotte pointed to a 2018 facilities study which raised concerns about certain areas of the building’s infrastructure. The original 1937 kindergarten wing–a known area of concern that is currently closed–and the 1961 addition to the building are both areas designated as in need of repair, as well as the overall HVAC system and plumbing issues. With the study in hand, a committee was formed to look at options for moving forward. After meeting throughout 2019, they ultimately gained approval from the town to contract with Tecton Architects to gather professional advice through the creation of the ongoing Feasibility Study.
Posing the options as “Fix, repair, and maintain” or “Try to reimagine the space for long-term future use,” Diotte explained that the current board is attempting to use the “gift of hindsight” to better conditions, fixing what are perceived by some as former BOE missteps. One such area of contention involves a new roof that was placed on the kindergarten wing, in the not-too-distant past, that some of the plans would propose demolishing. However successfully or not, Diotte attempted to diffuse anger over this point by stating that “No one on the [current] board was on the board then,” that they were attempting to learn from the “lessons of the past,” and said “What this current board does not want is for people to look back and question why they spent money to maintain an aging building.”
The chief problems in the building are prioritized as the playgrounds, which the board would like to begin on as soon as possible, but are waiting for a finalized plan for obvious reasons; the state of the kindergarten wing, which was closed due to mold or other unidentifiable environmental concerns; and water issues, which stem from rusty water fountains and piping. To combat the rusty water vehicles, the school is relying on 13 bottled water stations. First Selectman Don Lowe, spoke up regarding the water, saying to Diotte that “The department of health has given the school the blessing to use the well…it is drinkable and cookable water.” He went on to say “I will confess, I have a very open mind, but when you put the issue [of water] third, I get concerned about your presentation.”
In walking the attendees through the building analysis, Hopkins pointed out that the layout of the current building, given its the incremental additions over time, makes for an awkward flow for students navigating the building. The goal of several of the building options would be, in addition to modernizing the spaces, to reorganize the flow for efficiency, and, in doing so, maximize the usage of the space. In light of the significant decline in enrollment projections that are slated for The Sherman School, the architects also proposed sharing space for town services in a few of the building options. The proposed move would include space for the town’s Senior Center and Park and Recreation Department use and would also bring the school closer to being “right-sized,” for its enrollment. In addition, it was also possibly a marketing reach to the older population in Sherman, many of whom have expressed skepticism about, and growing outcries against, the project. A couple of plans also included a multimillion-dollar community pool.
With the exception of the maintenance plan, which keeps the school structurally as is, updates portions at a time, and addresses all primary safety concerns, but doesn’t add “educational enhancements,” and the brand-new option, which was quickly skirted over–with sweeping acknowledgement from the board that there is not an appetite for it among the public–the variations for the school are similar. All are designated as renovate as new, with small additions and will therefore be eligible for approximately 15% in state reimbursement. Hopkins noted that several spaces, such as the gymnasium and auditorium, are oversized for the enrollment size in Sherman, but the state would grant space waivers to school in this case, as they are grandfathered in and in ‘Good’ condition. In simple terms, as there is massive renovation involved in each proposal, there’s the ‘Hillside Scheme,’ which takes advantage of the hill going down to the Memorial Field; the ‘Embrace Scheme’ which proposes a wraparound addition; and the ‘Linear Scheme,’ which imagines a significant addition, plus demolition of large parts of the current building.
Another insight into the possible future recommendation of the board came in the form of the question of what to do with students during renovation. The architects suggested that additions can be used as “swing space,” allowing them to renovate other areas of the building while having space for students simultaneously. “We think that it makes sense from an organizational standpoint,” Hopkins said. Some enhancements that the architects touted in the renovation/addition plans included: increased safety strategies, especially in terms of visibility from the administration/central office; the addition of Quiet Rooms adjacent to each classroom, which was explained as places for students to choose to go to read books, etc.; bathrooms in each kindergarten room–though it was later pointed out by a resident that there are bathrooms in each room in the kindergarten wing–increased energy efficiency; and more.
There was a lengthy question and answer period, in which many residents spoke out against various aspects of the project. Prior to the commencement of questions, Diotte stated that this was “not an opportunity for a real back and forth debate.” She stressed that there would be a three-minute limit per person, but in the end, the time limit was not enforced.
There were many seniors who spoke out against the idea of a new Senior Center being tied to the project, with rising fears about the tacked-on costs that would need to be funded outside of the school’s project, which was confirmed. In addition, there was some brainstorming that occurred to suggest other existing areas that may be used by seniors, such as newer, large spaces at the firehouse and library, which would help maximize use in those buildings.
Residents protested the projected fees for the building, which one calculated would range from $48K to $77K per student. There were also questions regarding what the district is doing to stabilize or increase enrollment. Diotte explained that one attempt to make Sherman attractive to young families was to eliminate the lottery system that was previously used for preschool enrollment. In addition, the board and town will consider offering free preschool to all Sherman toddlers.
There were many comments regarding the state of the kindergarten wing and whether it is worth renovating, with several residents expressing interest in keeping that portion of the building. One mom thanked the board for closing the wing after her child came home smelling like mold and feeling sick.
Residents asked the board to fully vet the 8- to 10-year maintenance plan option, despite that fact that they’ve signaled that their recommendation will likely be to renovate and add-on.
“We don’t need a community pool, we’re on Candlewood Lake”–was a comment that came from the audience, to which many applauded–pretty much summing up the thoughts that were expressed regarding the $4.1M add-on to some of the plans. Several residents gave responses that centered around this being seen as an extravagant ask.
The next steps in the process involve the architects refining the concepts; BOE members and architects meeting with the Senior Center staff; consulting with the state school grants office to review space utilization and the subsequent reimbursement; and modeling of the tax implications for residents.
There will be a third public forum on Wednesday, March 25. If residents are interested in sending feedback in the interim, they should feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sarah Opdahl