New Fairfield High School and Consolidated Elementary School have been much in the news lately. The Board of Education voted recently to move forward with a state grant application—due June 30, 2019 — to fund some portion of two new buildings for those schools. This was a non-partisan, unanimous vote. Likewise, the Board of Finance at its last meeting voted unanimously to back the grant application by the Board of Education.
While the basic responsibility for deciding what proposals to put in front of the voters rests with the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen gets involved in two ways: We are required by the State to pass two resolutions backing the application for the state grant being put together by the Board of Education (which we will consider at our May 23rd meeting) and to approve moving the proposal to fund the bonds to build the schools forward to a town referendum (which will likely be scheduled in the September/October timeframe.). Because of this, I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about these two schools and their problems. I believe it is important to back the proposal of the Board of Education and move their proposal forward for final decision by the voters in the fall.
While the proposal to build two new buildings arose just recently, the problems in both of these schools have been in the making for decades. In fact, there was a proposal about ten years ago to renovate the High School for not much less than the amount being discussed for building new, but it was abandoned for lack of support at that time. In the meantime, the basic problems have not gotten any better.
The High Schools was opened in 1974. The building, which came in at $5.5 million compared to a projected cost of $15 million, had problems from the beginning that persist today – drainage was not adequate, leading to flooding, corners of the building did not fit together properly, leading to drafty spaces; uninsulated classroom walls mean you can hear what’s going on in the next classroom, space in the basement is poorly insulated so that students and teachers alike have to wear jackets to class in the winter; the slope on the auditorium is so steep, we’ve got a civil rights violation notice against us; the small elevator means wheel chairs cannot get to the second floor (another civil rights notice); electrical heating means we pay well above what we should for heating the poorly insulated building; the method of construction of the building means that there are “few bones”, let alone “good bones” upon which to base a renovation; and on and on. All of this led to the State of Connecticut telling New Fairfield that the building is a lost cause for renovation and they will only fund a new building. The problems at the High School are so severe, we’ve been put on warning that the High School might lose accreditation.
Likewise, Consolidated Elementary School has major problems that the State has also decided are beyond repair. The building was first built in 1941 and added on to a number of times. The roof leaks cannot be further repaired — a whole new roof is required to address the many leaks. The multi-purpose room has buckets arrayed in strategic spots to catch leaks; our youngest learners use bathrooms with walls that have huge water stains on them. New windows will be required for most of the building to replace the single-pane metal frame windows that leak cold in the winter. The foundation is cracking in spots; concrete recently repaired is chipping away again. The water supply is inadequate and putting in a new storage tank in the part of the building built in 1941 is problematic. The oldest part of the building is wood frame with wood siding and vinyl siding on top of that – with no fire sprinklers. Two break-out rooms required to deal with children who require special attention are housed in former bathrooms. And on and on.
We use our schools intensively in New Fairfield – primarily for educating our kids, but also for many community activities. The problems are significant and will require significant resources to address. This will be the most important investment proposal we will consider as a Town in several decades. It will help define who we are as a community.
The three Boards (Education, Finance, and Selectmen) have been working closely together on this – and will continue to do so. This should not be a partisan issue. Led by the Board of Education, we will work closely with that state lawmakers who represent us, Representatives Richard Smith and Ken Gucker and Senator Julie Kushner, to squeeze out every penny we can at the State level.
As this moves forward, we will also work to make sure that the most cost-effective plan to meet the education specifications approved by the Board of Education is put forward and that appropriate oversight is exercised so that whatever construction is done is done well
Ultimately it is the community as a whole that will make the decision on how to proceed – whether to commit itself to raising taxes so that the Town can build schools our students need – or whether to continue to postpone the inevitable. It’s very easy to make a decision without knowing the facts. This decision is too important to do that. Ask questions. Take a tour of the buildings. Several are scheduled, as indicated on the website for the Board of Education. Participate and decide.
– Khris Hall, Selectman