School Board Leaning Toward Phased Addition to Middle School

November 15, 2013

by Barbara O’Brien

After a further whittling down of the choices intended to reduce the space crunch in Windham’s public schools, school board members are leaning toward a phased approach to enlarging Windham Middle School.  This latest development came during the school board meeting on November 5.

Space constraints and large class sizes have been worsening in the past several years, as Windham, unlike most of New Hampshire, continues to see a population growth.  The construction of new houses and the resultant increase in residents is anticipated to continue for at least the next six years.

School administrators started out with about a dozen possibilities, then reduced the choices to three final options late last month.  The final choices included doing nothing this year, moving eighth grade students into a new addition at Windham High School, and a multi-phased addition to Windham Middle School.

Although Windham Middle School is dubbed “a middle school,” because it houses grades six through eight, it is not a State approved middle school, because it lacks certain programs and facilities.  If an addition is ultimately approved by voters, those deficiencies would be addressed.

While doing nothing this coming year didn’t gain much popularity among board members or residents who attended the meeting, moving the eighth graders to the high school was even less popular.  School board members were adamant about not wanting to combine these various age levels in one facility, saying they felt it would be detrimental to all the students involved.

As a result, Superintendent Winfried Feneberg came back with another proposal, one that seemed to catch school board members off-guard.  “Is it possible to bring other grades to the high school site?”  Feneberg asked himself.  Kindergarten through second grades wouldn’t provide enough students to build “a school within a school” at the high school site, he said.  Third through fourth grades would work, though, as far as the number of students goes, he said, adding that the idea was “only conceptual” at this point.

“This would provide some relief” to the overcrowding, Feneberg said, “although it would not be a total solution.  This option would also require the hiring of additional administrative staff, adding increased staffing costs.  “I do feel this is a viable temporary solution,” however.  Feneberg noted.  The cost of this option, including renovations to the middle school to make it compliant with State standards, plus an addition to the high school, would cost between $12 and $16 million, Feneberg said.  The construction of a separate building on the high school site would also most likely result in the loss of one athletic field, he explained.

School board member Michelle Farrell said she likes the idea that administrators are “thinking out of the box.”  “We know we need space for two grades and down the line we’ll need an addition at the high school,” Farrell said, so an addition at the high school wouldn’t be throwing money away and there appear to be less site issues at the high school location than there are at the site of the existing middle school.

Vice-Chairman Stephanie Wimmer said she was dead set against putting eighth graders at the high school.  “It’s wrong for all the children involved,” she said.  Wimmer said she feels the best solution to the space problem is a new free-standing school building.  “It will cost less money in the long-term,” she said.  As for building an addition at the high school for third and fourth graders, Wimmer said, “I feel like it’s going to get really expensive.”  “It sounds like a whole heck of a lot of money,” she added.

Wimmer, who has been involved in school expansion issues for nearly a decade, said she doesn’t feel that the community of Windham believes there really is a space problem.  “The community feels no outrage,” Wimmer said.  “They have no appetite to solve the problem.”  Residents seem to think we can build a couple of  science labs at the middle school and add a turf field, “and we’re done,” Wimmer said.  School board member Dennis Senibaldi commented that there is “always a level of convincing people” that something needs to be done.

School board member Jerome Rekart said he didn’t “hate the idea right off the bat,” referring to building an addition for the third and fourth grades at the high school.  “What do we gain by shifting third and fourth graders instead of seventh and eighth graders, though,” Rekart asked.  According to Feneberg, the benefit would be that there are no athletic programs to be impacted and the younger students would be contained in their own classrooms, for the most part, rather than changing classes throughout the school day.

Chairman Michael Joanis said he views the latest proposal as “only a temporary stopgap to where we need to be.”  Senibaldi said he appreciates Feneberg’s creativeness, but feels it is not a viable solution.  “It just creates another bump,” Senibaldi stated.  The third and fourth grades moving to a new addition would cost more in administrative expenses, he said.  “I’d rather spend money on more teachers, instead.”

Senibaldi said he still supports a phased approach to expanding Windham Middle School.  “We need to stay the course,” The residents are all facilitated out,” he said.  “We need to stay clear and concise” about where we are headed.  “We’ve already been told ‘no’ to a new school,” he said.  Last March’s proposed seventh and eighth grade school, planned for land on London Bridge Road, went down to a resounding defeat.

Following a lengthy discussion regarding moving third and fourth graders to the high school site, a consensus of school board members showed there is no real support for the proposal.  And, although no vote was taken at the last meeting, board members did show a preference for a phased addition to the middle school.  The preliminary plans for the addition include a three-story 12-classroom addition with a multi-purpose room.  This would allow for the creation of additional science labs, technical education and family/consumer science classes; all of which would bring Windham Middle School into compliance with State standards for an approved middle school.

Rekart said he views the phased middle school expansion as “a step forward.”  Senibaldi said he feels the idea has a good chance of garnering voter support.  The estimated cost of necessary site work, plus phase one of the additions to Windham Middle School would be approximately $17.8 million.

Despite advance notice of the November 5 meeting, few residents attended, none of whom were in favor of moving the eighth grade to the high school.  Windham resident Tom Murray, who served for many years on the zoning board, did add another perspective to the discussion, however.  Murray, who is the president of Pugliese Contracting in Windham, as well as the father of five children, said he is actively pursuing permission from the Department of Education to open a charter school in Windham.  In fact, the building which might someday house a charter school is currently under construction on Rockingham Road.  Traditionally, charter schools include students in kindergarten through eighth grade.  The charter school being put forth by Murray would house between 300 and 400 students.  Murray also said he is in the process of seeking federal grant money for this tentative charter school.

School board members will hold their next meeting on Tuesday, November 19, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Community Development Building (next to Town Hall).  It is anticipated that board members will reach a final decision on which space option to pursue.  Public input will be allowed.