A message to the community about where the proposal for updating the elementary facilities is going wrong
by MAURA DONNELLY
After speaking to town officials, the superintendent, and parents, I have reached the conclusion that the latest plan approved by the Board of Education for updating the elementary school facilities is not in the best interests of the community.
The Current Proposal and How It Came About
Currently, the plan approved by the BOE is to renovate Lillie B. Haynes School, to postpone the rebuilding of Flanders School for five to seven years after spending $1.5 million on refurbishments, and to close Niantic Center School and move students to LBH. If this plan does not pass referendum, NCS will close after the 2016-2017 school year and students will be moved to LBH, with no improvements whatsoever at any school.
The proposal overturned the BOE’s previously approved proposal to rebuild Flanders next to the original building, renovate NCS, and close LBH after elected officials in town expressed concerns that the $58 million plan is too expensive.
The former proposal was presented to the BOE in 2014 by the Design Steering Committee, a committee formed of BOE members, school administrators and members of the community. The committee made their decision based on an accumulation of years of research that investigated every possible option, from renovating all three schools to closing two schools and building one big school for the entire town. The final proposal that the committee presented took into account the reality of declining student enrollment and the additional expense to the town, but kept the quality of education the first and foremost concern.
The current plan was developed after conversations between the superintendent and town officials, past and present, about the likelihood of the former proposal passing referendum.
For the following reasons, I believe that the current proposal does not meet the needs of the school system and that the proposal that is in the best interests of the community is to rebuild Flanders, renovate NCS, and close LBH and return it to the town.
1.) Effect on Student Learning
In order to maintain East Lyme’s standard of excellence in education, the students and teachers must always be the first priority. A major benefit of the plan to closing LBH instead of NCS would be that it would cause less disruption to the students during the construction period. According to the former proposal, students at NCS would be moved to classrooms LBH during renovations and the new Flanders School will be built next to the existing building, allowing every student in the district to continue learn in classrooms for the entire construction period.
However, under the current proposal, there is not enough room at NCS to house LBH students during their construction, which means that the BOE will have to choose between less desirable options.
The first option is to use portable classrooms placed outside of the school(s). This would mean that for two years during construction, an undetermined number of students will be learning in classrooms isolated from the majority of the school except for when they return to the main building a few times a day for lunch and specials. Some concerns about this plan are the security of the portables and moving children in inclement weather.
Another option is the phased approach, when students are moved between classrooms as the building is renovated, one wing at a time. While all construction will take place after school hours, there are obvious concerns about the safety of students learning next to a construction zone. All necessary precautions will be taken for the safety of students and staff, however, there is always a possibility that something might not work out as planned. Also, the construction will displace activities that take place after school, including childcare and sport practices.
2.) Unequal Facilities
At a time when East Lyme students are leaving our schools to attend magnet schools in the region, which costs the town money, it is in the town’s best interest to maintain facilities for every single grade level that provide the most attractive option for families. By putting an entire school on the back burner, the current proposal will not help East Lyme to compete with the beautiful facilities of regional magnet schools.
Flanders seems to be in the worst condition of the three elementary schools, considering the fact that the current state of school makes it more cost effective to rebuild an entire building than to renovate it, yet the current proposal means that its needs will be addressed last. The $1.5 million set aside for refurbishments will only be enough to pay for a more secure school entrance and updated furniture, technology, lighting, and tiles.
According to parents, this proposal is a band aid that simply does not address the school’s most pressing needs. One of the biggest concerns is the ventilation, as there is no air-conditioning. At Flanders, the cafeteria gets so hot in certain months that there are fans running constantly and the doors are kept open, which is not only a distraction to learning, but a security risk. If security is such a concern, does it even matter that there is a more secure main entrance if the cafeteria doors are wide open? Only a new building will address the structural problems that are the root of this issue and other problems at Flanders, and they should not be left alone another seven years.
Undeniably, the impact of this current proposal will create a situation of inequity in size and resources between the two schools. While NCS and LBH will be moved into a new, air-conditioned school with technology for twenty-first century learning by 2019, the students at Flanders will remain in an over 50-year-old school with minimal refurbishment improvements for years to come.
Even after waiting seven years to rebuild Flanders, the BOE cannot guarantee that after spending $34 million on LBH and $1.5 million on Flanders, the town will go through with investing the money to rebuild Flanders, which currently would cost $33 million and will only cost the town more after seven more years of inflation and declining state reimbursement. At this rate, it will likely be over a decade before the newly built Flanders opens its doors to students.
The Flanders students need a new school now.
3.) Cost to the Town
Additionally, information about the current proposal's cost and effect on taxes was presented to the BOE and the community in a way that was misleading. According to this information, the most recent proposal will have a mill increase of 1.1, which means an annual tax increase of $281 for homes assessed at $250,000. The older proposal presented a mill rate of 1.9 mill increase, or an increase of $482 in annual property taxes.
However, the tax increase of $281 only factors in the cost of renovate LBH, which costs over $8 million more than the cost of renovating NCS. When the BOE presents the current proposal as a $34 million plan compared to the previous $58 million plan, they fail to take into account the cost of rebuilding Flanders. After current state reimbursement, the cost of rebuilding Flanders is nearly equal to the cost of renovating LBH, which means it can reasonably be assumed that in order to rebuild Flanders in five to seven years, the mill rate will increase by approximately the same amount again, making the entire project reach the total of a 2.2 mill increase. In fact, the Flanders project will cost even more in seven years due to inflation and a pattern of declining state reimbursement, which potentially brings the mill rate even further up.
When government attempts to shortcut spending at the expense of the upkeep of public facilities, there are often unanticipated consequences. Here in East Lyme, the decision to make minor upgrades on the high school baseball field a few years ago rather than rebuilding the entire field at once ultimately ended up costing the town more money because the improvements were band aids that did not address the real problem. Every year, a new issue arose with the baseball fields that required more money and dragged out the construction process. Last year, the drainage problem kept the team off the baseball field for an entire season, so the team had to travel to Dodd Stadium in Norwich to play every home game.
If Flanders is merely refurbished rather than rebuilt, a similar situation could develop, especially if a proposal to rebuild Flanders fails to pass referendum in five to seven years. The town needs to accept the situation for what it is and making room in the capital improvement plan for the $33 million to rebuild Flanders before the project is dragged out and costs the town more money. The consequences of such a situation will have much larger and long lasting consequences to the town and school system than the baseball field situation has. This scenario would be damaging not only to the students and staff at Flanders, but to East Lyme's reputation for providing quality education.
Another cost for the town to consider is property values. One of the greatest draws for families moving into East Lyme is its highly regarded school system. Although East Lyme’s reputation for education is stellar, young families considering moving to town may be turned off by the condition of Flanders building and the fact that there is no guarantee it will be addressed in the immediate future. As a result, the property values, especially in the Flanders section of the district, will potentially decrease.
4.) Priorities from the Town Government Come Before Students' Needs
Looking solely at the total costs for the rebuilding/renovating of each school, it is difficult to understand how the current proposal would be determined more affordable. However, there is one more factor to consider: the town of East Lyme has more to gain from closing NCS than LBH.
If NCS is closed, the town will have the opportunity to sell the school, which would bring the town a considerable amount of money because of its location in downtown Niantic. LBH’s location, which is distant from the downtown area and located next to the middle school, is not as marketable.
The BOE was convinced by officials in the town government that the town could not afford to work on two buildings at once. Considering that a plan that closes NCS and leaves open the option of selling the property in the near future is more beneficial to the town, it is reasonable to conclude that their position on the proposal is influenced by that fact.
In a town that prides itself on its strong educational system, it is unacceptable that the BOE would accept a proposal that prioritizes the money made from closing a school over following through with the plan that was determined by years of research to be in the best interests of the students. The BOE, which represents the students and teachers, has a responsibility to stand up for the plan that will provide the students across the district with equitable technology and learning opportunities for the 21st century.
While selling the property of NCS will bring in a significant amount of money for the town, it is important to remember that the property at stake is a well-functioning, beloved school that has played an important role in the Niantic community since it opened more than 60 years ago. The school buildings were built for the purpose of educating this town's youth, not for the town government's benefit. Instead of worrying about what use the town could get out of a property, the deciding factor the BOE should be considering is what each building and its location has to offer future generations of students.
Over a year ago, the BOE voted in favor of renovating NCS over LBH based on the cost of renovations and what was best for the students educationally. Why has this changed?
The decision to change the proposal was made because elected officials in town advised the superintendent and BOE that the $58 million plan was too expensive to pass referendum. Although the town government is most familiar with the effect of the plan on the budget and taxes, their decision to put pressure on the BOE to come up with a less expensive plan was not one that should have been made solely by a group of people from the town government.
Before the town government blocked a proposal for the schools that had been approved by the BOE for a year, it needed to hear directly from the people they shared concerns about raising taxes. The town government should have hosted a public forum or community meeting in order to explain the situation and to hear directly from town residents if they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to make the repairs that the elementary schools desperately need in a timely manner.
Instead, the changes were passed with seemingly no input from the community outside of the town government. The BOE passed the superintendent’s revised proposal to renovate LBH, delay rebuilding Flanders, and close the NCS building only two weeks after it was presented to them. According to the meeting minutes of the BOE meeting on Mar. 28, the night the current proposal was approved, the majority of the parents who spoke during public comment asked the town to slow down and reconsider postponing rebuilding Flanders and closing NCS. When the BOE passed the proposal, these people felt that their voices as parents and town residents were ignored.
Since the fate of the elementary schools affects every single resident, whether through taxes or their children’s education, the town needs to be involved more than they were in the decision to abandon the previously accepted proposal. The town voters should have the final say in whether or not the town will make fitting the money needed to repair the schools a greater priority in the town’s capital improvement plan.
5.) Commitment to Education
Even if the cost of the project is high, the town has an obligation to provide financial support to maintain its public facilities, especially its schools. The town most recently spent money on renovations at the elementary schools in the 1970s, so it is long overdue for the schools' needs to be addressed. During the last six years, the town has put projects for upkeep desperately needed at the elementary schools on the back burner as the BOE spent years researching the best plan for school district. It is unacceptable for these needs to be further delayed at any of these schools.
The youngest students in the district deserve to have the opportunity to learn in schools that are designed for the 21st century, just as the middle school and high school students. As the voice of the students and teachers, the BOE has a responsibility to reach out to the entire town to advocate for a plan that will meet the needs of the entire district, not one that settles at improving the learning environment for less than 2/3 of the student population. Instead, at the most critical moment, the BOE conceded too much of the original plan in an effort to pass referendum.
Many parents are angry that the commitment of the quality of education has been trumped by cost concerns of elected officials rather than the consensus of a town referendum. They are upset that inaccurate information that stated that the LBH property could not possibly be sold because of stipulation from a 1950s town meeting was presented as a reason to abandon the former proposal. They are frustrated that the BOE cannot guarantee that Flanders will be rebuilt in the time span that is planned. They are angry that the BOE still keeps the option open of closing NCS before the construction on LBH is complete, which would put more children into a building under construction or portable classrooms when there are alternative proposals that could have guaranteed that every child remain in classrooms before they are moved into the newly renovated school.
At this point, if any of the parents at these schools vote in favor, it is likely to be out of fear that the next option presented by the town will do even less for the schools than the current proposal. Is this truly how a town celebrated for its commitment to education conducts itself as it tries to improve its elementary school facilities?
Ways for the BOE to Move Forward
After taking into consideration all the concerns of the current proposal, I would like to see the following steps taken. First, the BOE should step back and review what the former proposal has to offer the town. Since the cost of addressing the needs of two schools at once and the effect it will have on town taxpayers was the single primary objection to the first proposal, the BOE should review the plans for NCS and Flanders to prioritize which improvements to the school are absolutely necessary. For example, the proposed site plans to build outdoor amphitheaters at both schools would be positive additions to the schools; however, not building them will not have a detrimental effect on the quality of education. I am confident that if the BOE could find similar opportunities to cut unnecessary improvements if they reviewed the proposal again.
The BOE will need to take action immediately, as there is not much time to change their proposal before the deadline for paperwork to be submitted to the state. If the BOE fails to make the deadline, the cost of the project to the town will rise significantly because with every year that they spend deliberating, there is less state reimbursement
Potential Option for LBH
At the time of the proposal that would close LBH was brought forward, it was suggested that the town would be able to use the building as a town hall or police station. According to First Selectman Mark Nickerson, that option is no longer a possibility because the space available is too big for the town’s needs.
I would like to propose the possibility that the town could use the space at LBH for more than a town hall. Central Office, for example, could be moved to another wing of the LBH building, which has proximity to the middle school and is a more central location between the schools if NCS remains open. Additionally, having central office and the town hall offices in the same building allows for better communication and eliminates the upkeep of the current Central Office building from the budget. If there is no other use of the Central Office building, it could be torn down to be used as athletic fields for the high school.
Also, the Parks and Recreation department could move into a wing of the LBH building, giving the public library more space. While a town hall would probably have little use for the cafeteria, art, and gym in the LBH building, Parks and Recreation could use these rooms for the afterschool program from elementary students and other community events. Since the LBH building would still be open as a town facility, youth sport programs like East Lyme Youth Basketball and the Challengers basketball team could continue to the use the gym, while closing NCS would eliminate a gym for town sport leagues.
As stated before, the decision about the elementary schools was one to be made by the entire population of East Lyme. The BOE has a responsibility to ensure that the plan that is in the best interests of the students is the first option brought forward to the town for a referendum. If the community voted that the proposal was too much for the town to afford, at least the BOE would have done everything they possibly could for the students before moving onto less desirable options.
Although the BOE and town government are moving carefully with this proposal, they might be surprised by the support they could get from the community. East Lyme’s stellar educational record is something that has benefited people throughout out the community, whether or not they have children. Quality education helps to keep property values high, which protects residents from losing money when they sell their homes. Even people who do not have children currently in school have close ties to the school district because they are graduates or have children who graduated from East Lyme. If the BOE and parents went out into the community to prove that the schools desperately need new facilities, they may have a chance at convincing the community to support their plans.
As a student who has experienced 13 years of education in the ELPS system, I have benefited from the times East Lyme pulled together to pass expensive plans to renovate the high school in 1998 and to build the new middle school building in 2001. Although these projects were controversial, ultimately, the residents of East Lyme made the decision to invest in the schools because they recognized the need for a new facility.