School Board Majority Says No to Recommending Citizen-Petitioned Construction

January 30, 2015
 

by Barbara O’Brien

When members of the Citizens Facilities Committee realized that the Windham School Board was not going to put forth a construction project this year, they took the initiative and submitted a citizen-petitioned warrant article.

The Citizens Facilities Committee, a sub-committee established by the Windham School Board, has been meeting weekly since last April, with hundreds of hours spent vetting various options; each intended to solve the ongoing space crunch faced by three of Windham’s four public schools.  Although the time constraints the committee was under resulted in a crunch of its own, they did come forth this past fall with a recommendation (Option 6).  After listening to their proposal, however, school board Vice-Chairman Dennis Senibaldi requested that they go back to the drawing table and take another look at what was dubbed Option 2.

As a result of the last-minute request, time simply ran out.  It was at this juncture, that committee member Tom Murray decided to author a citizen-petitioned warrant article; one which proposes an addition and renovations to Golden Brook School, as well as renovations to Windham Middle School.  Murray was able to procure the required number of signatures on the citizens’ petition and get it turned in, shortly before the 5 p.m. deadline on Jan. 9.  The citizens’ petition asks voters to raise and appropriate $15 million for these projects.  Passage of the construction

bond requires a 60 percent majority vote.

A bond hearing was held on the citizen-petitioned warrant article on Jan. 20.  The petition is listed as Article 3 on this year’s school district warrant.  Speaking for the members of the Citizens Facilities Committee were Tom Murray, Rich Amari and Jerry Rufo.  “We’re tired of band-aid approaches to the space problem,” Amari said.  “This warrant article is a permanent solution.”

‘We’ve been working on this option for seven months,” Murray added.  “It’s unacceptable to me to have a solution and not move forward with the proposal.”

“I want the residents’ hard-earned tax money to be spent wisely,” Rufo said.  “It would be irresponsible of us not to come forward with a recommendation at this time.”  “I want the public to have the opportunity to vote on this issue this coming March.”  Option 2 provides the best solution, Rufo said.  It’s the most cost-effective and would bring about the return of 100 third-graders and 40 preschoolers now housed at Windham High School, he explained.

“It’s not right to do nothing,” Murray added.

According to Option 2, as included in the proposed citizen-petitioned warrant article, Golden Brook would become a facility for preschoolers through fourth grade, Center School would house students in grades five and six and Windham Middle School would be used for grades seven and eight.  The goal would be to have an average of 20 students per class.  The renovations and addition would free up much-needed space at both the middle school and Center School, Murray explained.

Not only would lab space be incorporated at the middle school, but art rooms, music rooms, special education space, an enrichment room and additional media space would become available at Golden Brook.  The proposed addition includes a second floor over the existing “pods.”  The proposed project also includes the construction of 20 regular classrooms at Golden Brook.  The new kindergarten wing at Golden Brook would not be impacted by the proposed construction, nor would the existing cafeteria/gymnasium.  The proposal also includes purchasing a piece of land adjacent to Golden Brook School.

Although school board Chairman Jerome Rekart said he appreciated the time and effort the Citizens Facilities Committee has put into the task, he is concerned about the land acquisition required to bring Option 2 to fruition.  Rekart said he had spoken with the current landowner and been told this individual doesn’t support the citizen-petitioned warrant article put forth by committee members, although he has no problem with Option 2 itself.  Murray said he had also spoken with the current landowner and been told the landowner wanted the idea to have the support of the school board, but that he would cooperate with the sale “when the time comes.”

School board member Michael Joanis said he had multiple concerns about the citizens’ petition, including no existing agreement for the acquisition of the land in question, the need for site improvements and students being in class during construction.  “This is putting the cart before the horse,” Joanis said.  “I need a second opinion” on the proposal, he said.  “I’m not comfortable moving forward until we have multiple cost estimates. The whole process is backwards,” Joanis said.  “I’m not comfortable unless the land acquisition is spelled out.

Murray noted that the land acquisition is referred to in Option 2. Murray said he “respectfully disagreed” with Joanis, commenting that the petitioners are aware of site work that needs to be done and are aware of the need to hire an architectural/engineering firm.  “We wouldn’t present anything to the town that hasn’t been vetted out,” Murray said, adding that he will have all prices verified prior to Election Day in March.  Murray said that the Golden Brook site is the most “user-friendly” property available.  “I am confident that we can work around school being in session,”

Murray said.  “We do recognize the challenges of the situation, but feel we have the solution in our hands.”  Murray said he had already spoken to six contractors and several other school districts regarding the proposed construction project.  The construction would take about 18 months to complete, he said.

Superintendent Winfried Feneberg expressed appreciation for all the work done by members of the Citizens Facilities Committee.  “I’m very pleased with the level of public input,” he said.  “There has been an inordinate amount of effort put forth.”

Feneberg agreed that Option 2 is the most viable of the choices considered, but also believes there is additional work that needs to be completed before taking the question to voters.  “I understand the community’s urgency,” Feneberg said, “but we need more time.”

School board member Ken Eyring said, “I agree something needs to be done.  I also agree we’re running out of time.”

“There needs to be a balance here,” he continued, adding that the next two months prior to Election Day might allow sufficient time to wrap up the remaining issues.  Eyring agreed that the land acquisition is one of the outstanding issues.  Operating costs are also an important part of the formula, he said.  All in all, though, Eyring believes the proposed warrant article “is a very viable alternative.”  “The bottom line, though, is that it’s up to the voters,” he said.  Should the citizen-petitioned warrant article pass voter scrutiny in March, Eyring said he wants the members of the Citizens Facilities Committee to continue as a part of the process.  Those members who were at the bond hearing agreed to his request.

Former school board member Michelle Farrell said she’s concerned that time has run out for anything to be accomplished this year.  “We need more time before spending $15 million, she said.

Former school board member Rick Horrigan, who also worked on the high school construction project, said he’s concerned about “following the correct process.”  “It’s tough to get a 60 percent majority vote,” Horrigan said.  “We need time to educate the public.”  Horrigan did admit, however, that he feels Option 2 addresses all foreseeable issues; looking 10 years into the future.  According to Horrigan, if approved, with a 20-year construction bond, the tax impact in the highest year would be 55 cents per $1,000 assessed property valuation.

Resident Bob Leonard said, “This is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for a solution, this is it!  It’s not perfect.  It’s not going to satisfy everyone, but it will help the kids; it will help the teachers; it will help alleviate the traffic congestion.”  “I fully support the proposal.”

Murray said committee members were very cautious about only proposing what the voters have said they want.

Former school board Chairman Barbara Coish said she was happy to sign the citizens’ petition and fully supports the concept.  “Salem just put in an addition,” Coish noted, “and every one of the kids survived” the disruption.

Resident Chris Baker also added his support to the citizen-petitioned warrant article.  “It’s time to do something,” Baker said.  “This board has the responsibility to move forward.”  Baker said he is aware of people in town who are considering pulling their children out of the school district, because of the over-crowding.

Joanis said the school board has included $100,000 in the proposed operating budget for next year; money that is intended for architectural and engineering fees.  “We just weren’t able to meet the timeline for this year, despite our best efforts,” Joanis said.

Vice-Chairman Senibaldi said he supports Option 2, as well, but also shares concerns over land acquisition.  “I’m kind of on the fence, right now,” Senibaldi said.  “There are so many positives, but there are a few drawbacks,” he said.  “What if the landowner just says “Sorry”?

School board member Breton said he is very impressed with what the committee has accomplished, but is also concerned about the vagueness of the land acquisition.

Windham resident and local business owner Karl Dubay cautioned school board members to be more aware of how many residents view them.  “There’s a big voting bloc in town that watches these meetings on cable TV and reads the newspapers and is yearning for some leadership,” Dubay said.  “It seems that no matter what this committee does, it doesn’t suit the school board,” he said.  “Every time someone has an idea that doesn’t meet the correct political form, it gets shot down.

“There needs to be an end to this negative interaction,” Dubay emphasized.  “The politics in this room are disgusting!”

Citizens Facilities Committee member Amari spoke to the residents who were at the meeting and watching on cable.  “The Citizens Committee?  We are you,” Amari said.  “We’re doing this for our kids.”  “Believe me, we’re not doing this for the school board.  We’re here for just one reason; to do this right.  We’re not giving up.”

After all was said and done, school board members voted 4 to 1 not to recommend passage of the proposed citizen-petitioned warrant article regarding school construction.  Voting against the petitioned warrant article were Michael Joanis, Dennis Senibaldi, Rob Breton and Jerome Rekart.  The only school board member who voted in support was Ken Eyring.  “I wholeheartedly support the citizens’ petition,” Eyring said.  “I have confidence in these people.”  Eyring said he believes the school board should reach out to the landowner before the clock runs out and Election Day arrives.  “It’s all about the kids,” Eyring said.

Joanis said he just couldn’t support a warrant article “that has some serious holes in it.”  A few days after the meeting, Eyring spoke about the proposed warrant article and his support for it.  “Due to a bubble of larger class sizes moving through our lower grades … the Windham School District has a space issue in the Center School and Middle School that has been foreseeable for years.  To the detriment of our students and teachers, this issue has not been addressed for two successive years.  With that in mind, I applaud the facilities committee members who took it upon themselves to file their petition by the January 9 deadline.  Not doing so would have forced our parents and children to wait another year before any other solution could be considered,” Eyring said.  “There are still open issues related to their initiative, but by stepping up, these Windham residents showed leadership and conviction.  I am very hopeful those remaining issues can be worked out in time for the March election, and if so … the voters will have a cost effective option to permanently address the space issues in our schools.”

Additional information on the construction proposal will be made available to the public during the deliberative session on Friday, Feb. 6, which begins at 7 p.m. in the Windham High School auditorium.  The committee will also continue to meet on a weekly basis in an attempt to resolve any outstanding issues.  Committee members said that all public input is welcome and appreciated.