No School Construction Option Selected

November 13, 2015


by Barbara O’Brien

Following a day-long get-together of architects, engineers and members of the Windham School District’s Building and Grounds Committee on Nov. 3, it was announced that no decision had yet been made on which school construction option to propose to voters.

Most everyone attending the school board meeting that evening had anticipated that a final option would have been chosen.  Such was not the case, however.  Instead, a new choice, dubbed “Option F” was introduced, based on discussions held during the preceding hours.

When the previous school board meeting was held on Oct. 15, the multiple options had been reduced to designing a combination of options C and D; utilizing aspects of each.  “At this point, however, we found we had more questions than answers,” Vice Chairman Tom Murray said.  It was, therefore, decided that vetting ideas suggested for “Option F” would be a valuable use of the ever-dwindling time.

School board members decided to look at other options when they realized the high cost of proposals C and D, either of which was estimated to be in the range of $27 million.  The proposal that was put forth last March in the amount of $15 million, but did not receive enough votes to pass, was much smaller in size than the proposals being currently considered.

Although no specific details were made public regarding “Option F,” it was stated that the newest idea involves taking down “the pods” at Golden Brook and reutilizing “the quads” area of the building.  The modified version of the combined “options C and D” is also still under consideration, however.  The newest ideas also include designs for septic, site work and an access road.  The proposals are all based on having 20 students per classroom.  No estimated costs for “Option F” were presented.

Interim Superintendent Tina McCoy commented on the two options still being reviewed.  “They both have pros and cons,” McCoy said, adding that she is very much aware of time sensitivity.  “We have to work quickly, but do it right,” she said.  Nobody is pleased with the anticipated costs, Business Administrator Adam Steel said, but everyone involved is acutely aware of the importance of proposing a concept that accurately addresses the educational needs of the school district.

There was some disagreement among school board members on statistics related to future student enrollment.  Murray said that projected enrollment indicates a decline in students at the lower grade levels.  The 2017 school year is projected to have peak enrollment, according to Murray, then decline from there.  School board member Daniel Popovici-Muller contested Murray’s statistics, commenting on the town’s continued residential development.  “People are still moving into Windham,” Popovici-Muller said.  “We need to get all the data available.”

“We’ve reached a point where we need to lock down a design,” Chairman Ken Eyring commented, emphasizing the need to get ballpark figures from the architectural and engineering firms working on the proposals.

School board member Rob Breton was the one to bring up wanting a comparison between a proposed addition and renovations to Golden Brook School and renovations to Windham Middle School and the construction of a brand-new seventh and eighth grade school off of London Bridge Road; a concept that has previously met with defeat.  The topic came up during the previous school board meeting and Breton said he thought the estimated price tag of a new school, plus anticipated operating costs, would be presented at the Nov. 3 meeting.  “The request was made two weeks ago,” Breton reminded his fellow school board members.

Chairman Eyring agreed with the need to have the estimated costs for a new school, so residents can see the difference between that and changes to Golden Brook and Windham Middle School.  The subject will come up, Eyring commented, adding that he would rather have the conversation sooner, than later.  Popovici-Muller disagreed with the urgency, however, saying that it was more important to have the architects and engineers working on the proposal for Golden Brook, than coming up with anticipated costs for a new school.  “We cannot have more delays,” Popovici-Muller said.  “We’re already in danger of missing critical deadlines.”  The comparison needs to be done, Popovici-Muller agreed, but is “not time-critical.”  “It’s not necessary to have the information by Nov. 17 (the next meeting)” he said.

Eyring disputed the idea that the school board was behind in moving a construction proposal forward to voters.  ““We are not behind schedule,” Eyring stated.

“I’m frustrated.  I’m annoyed … with this board, the public and the administration,” Murray said.  “This is Groundhog Day over and over again!”  “We’re chasing our tails,” he said.  “No matter how you slice it, dice it and cut it up options C/D and F will always be less than a new school.”  “The cost of a new school on the hill will far exceed what we’re currently proposing,” Murray insisted.  “A new school doesn’t make sense,” he continued, noting that all the comparison information is already available.  “People are entitled to their opinions, but not their own set of facts,” Murray said.  Murray is the owner of Pugliese Contracting located in Windham.  “I know what I’m doing,” he said, asking interested residents to go the Windham School District website.  “All the information is there,” Murray said.  “It’s data driven.”

When a new school was proposed three years ago, the additional anticipated operating costs for a fifth school were said to be in the neighborhood of $800,000 per year.

Building and Grounds Committee member Rob St. Laurent said that he, too, was feeling extremely frustrated by the way the process was going.  St. Laurent said he didn’t feel that committee members were being utilized the way they should be.  As for the idea of building another school, St. Laurent said, “A fifth school was taken off the table on day one.   We need firm direction.  We need a rudder.  We can’t change direction every two weeks,” he continued.  “If we don’t have a finish line, we’ll never meet our goals.  We need to nail it down!”

School board member Dennis Senibaldi agreed.  “Let the architects finish what they said they could do,” he said.  “People need to keep their eye on the ball.”

Former school board member Michael Joanis, who said two weeks earlier that he plans to present a citizen petition for the construction of a new school, reiterated his support of building a seventh and eighth grade school down the road from Windham High School, noting proposed class sizes and the lack of potential expansion capabilities at Golden Brook School.  “A new school would be expandable.  There would be no need to build a road or add utilities,” Joanis said; and the proposal already includes additional athletic fields and science labs.  Joanis insisted that the renovations and addition at Golden Brook, plus changes to the middle school, would total about $37 million, while a new school with the additional items, would carry a price tag of $31.6 million.

Resident Diane Carpenter said there are a large number of houses slated to be built in Windham in the not-too-distant future.  Just check with the planning board, she urged.  “These are not intended for childless families,” Carpenter said, adding that Windham has never built a school that turned out to be too big.  “We should be focusing on Golden Brook and the middle school,” former school board chairman Barbara Coish said.  “A new school on the hill will never pass!”

School facilities committee member Rich Amari spoke of how the committee had spent hundreds of hours coming up with what was considered to be the correct proposal.  “I want a new school.  I want the best.  I want the Taj Mahal,” Amari said.  “But we have to get the costs in line.  We have to compromise and we need to do something right away,” he said.  “Windham Middle School is deplorable,” he continued, saying it is so overcrowded that students aren’t allowed to carry their backpacks in the hallways.  As for the additional costs associated with a fifth school, Amari said, “Operating costs don’t go away.  You have to pay them year after year.”  “  I just hope a proposal gets on the ballot in time for next March.”

Regular meeting attendee Bob Coole said he was “disappointed” in the long, drawn-out process.  “As a member of the public, I just don’t know where the school board is going,” Coole said.  “Another option is just another curve,” he said.  “It seems as if you’re cast adrift on a nebulous sea of nothingness.”

Although architect Ingrid Nichols did not attend the most recent school board meeting, she did speak about the process afterward.  “During pre-bond design, we typically look at many different options for design, and must do this, in order to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each,” she explained.  “We also always try to solicit public input all the way through the design process, pre and post-bond, to assure that the maximum amount of people have input on the plans, as they develop.  This way we are not working in a vacuum and other good thoughts and designs can be vetted along the way.”

“The Windham School District, like many others, is looking to have a comprehensive solution to all of its schools and not just fix one school now and leave another one to be fixed in the near future,” Nichols continued.  Nichols, of Banwell Architects, also spoke about proposals regarding Windham Middle School.  “We have also been looking at how the school could be renovated and/or added on to, as well as reviewing the previous option of building a new middle school,” she said.  “Again, it is important to review all the options and weigh their advantages against their disadvantages, in order to determine the best solution possible.”

“The process we are going through with Windham is like other school pre-bond processes we have completed … dozens of times,” Nichols said.  “We have to review as many options as we can and listen to the public, in order to develop a design that responds to the educational needs and will also be supported by the majority of the community.”

Paul Gosselin, who serves as chairman of the building and grounds committee also spoke about the process, following the Nov. 3 meeting.  “The process we are working to achieve is pretty simple and I think it is on track,” he said.  “The first step was to obtain from the school administration what is needed for the program side of the equation, to ensure that we are covering the actual educational needs and not just proposing a building that may or may not solve current issues.”

“Once this information was provided, we looked at options on how to properly implement the space required,” Gosselin continued.  “The initial design review generated option C as the most favored,” he explained.  “However,  upon further review of this option, including discussion with a structural engineer, it was determined that option C would require more significant demolition of the existing building than was anticipated, so we developed option F as an alternative to allow for more reuse of the existing structure.”

At the same time, the Building and Grounds Committee also requested a cost estimate on the construction of a completely new school.  “We felt it was important to explore all the potential options, so that we can present the cost and benefit of each choice to the school board for its final decision,” Gosselin stated.  “The end goal is to generate a plan that both meets the educational needs and also provides the most cost-effective solution to the issues we are facing.”

“No doubt about it, we’re still putting plans together,” Eyring responded, adding that he had fully expected a final decision would have been made on Nov. 3.  “I didn’t foresee another option being brought forth,” Eyring commented.  “We’ll just have to deal with it and, then, make a decision.”  The school board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 17 will begin at 7 p.m. in the Community Development Building.  This meeting will be open to the public.