School Board Opts Not to Move Forward with School Addition

January 17, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

It was a torturous and intense process, one that began shortly after school district elections were over last March, but Windham School Board members have finally decided not to put forth a bond article to build an addition to Windham Middle School, at least not this year.  The reason?  The majority of the five board members felt the number one priority this year needs to be the passage of new teacher and instructional aide contracts.

Nobody on the school board or SAU administration denies that space constraints and class sizes are a major and worsening problem in the Windham School District.  The issue has been in the forefront and under public scrutiny for several years already.  And the problem is not likely to go away, certainly not in the next decade or so, but with Windham’s already high tax rate and several other educational issues needing to be solved; the school board decided not to move forward with expanding classroom and other facility space.

The 11th-hour decision came during the January 7 school board meeting, despite a presentation for an addition to Windham Middle School that came earlier in the evening.  The presentation, actually, included two versions of the proposed addition; one with a new access/egress off Heritage Hill Road, the other only an addition to the existing building.  Throughout the discussion at the beginning of the meeting, school district officials seemed to prefer the proposal that included the improved connection to Heritage Hill Road.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, residents wanted to know how an addition to the middle school would affect class sizes and the over-capacity issue.  According to information presented during the discussion, Windham Middle School is about 700 students over capacity right now.  The proposed addition would have provided new space for about 250 students per grade level (grades six through eight) and lowered class sizes to 25 students.  Currently, some classes have up to 30 students.  It also would have added science labs, a multi-purpose room, family consumer education space and a technology lab.  The cost to have done the project with an access road was quoted at $15,975,000, while an addition without road improvements would have been in the neighborhood of $14,950,000.  This portion of the proposal would only have been phase one of two phases.

School board chairman Michael Joanis said he had concerns about the proposal because it only affected the capacity at Windham Middle School, while not providing any relief to Center or Golden Brook Schools.  School board member Dennis Senibaldi, the only school board member who wanted to move forward with the proposed addition, said he realized it didn’t fix all the problems but would make some progress.  The proposal would have allowed Windham Middle School to meet state requirements for an approved middle school, which it currently does not.

Superintendent Winfried Feneberg, who is in the midst of his first budget season in that capacity, noted that the school board faces “a slew of facility issues,” including unabated community growth.  “We picked up 60 more kids this year, from last year, and are expecting 30 more next year,” Feneberg stated.  “None of this is trivial,” Feneberg said.  “It is a huge mountain to scale.”

“I don’t know if I can support even phase one, what with the other issues the district is facing,” school board member Jerome Rekart commented, listing the operating budget and the two pending contracts.  Those issues could already add 61 cents to the 2014 tax rate, he noted.  “We have to start somewhere,” Senibaldi responded.  “We can’t be paralyzed by fear of what’s waiting to be done.”  “We need to move forward,” Senibaldi said.  “Then, we need to work our butts off” to make sure these warrant articles pass, he commented.

Senibaldi did add, however, that he feels the proposed operating budget for 2014-2015 could be lower than where it stands now.  “Reducing the operating budget cannot pay for an addition to the school,” Superintendent Feneberg emphasized.  “You can’t believe in the magical god of money above us,” Senibaldi answered back, referring to the overall impact on taxpayers.  “It’s going to be a step-by-step crawl” over several years to solve all the problems, Senibaldi stated.

Chairman Joanis was incensed by Senibaldi’s comment insinuating that other board members are afraid of making decisions.  “Priorities change from year to year,” Joanis said.  “The teacher contract is more important this year than it was last year,” he said, noting that teachers have already been without a contract for two years.  “It’s not fear [of proposing an addition]”, Joanis said.  “It’s concern over doing something we might regret later.”  Joanis said he disagreed with Senibaldi 100%.  “I’m not going to vote to put a facility warrant article on the ballot until a teacher contract passes,” Joanis stated, saying he believes that’s the top priority.  The contract is “10 times more important,” he said.

Rekart agreed with Joanis, saying, “The teachers are the most important part of a child’s education.”  Commenting that he was certainly not afraid of making decisions, Rekart said he was simply attempting to be financially conservative.  “I’m looking at what voters can afford,” he said.  Rekart also said he wasn’t sure the latest proposal for an addition was “the best bang for the buck.”  “I feel it’s very expensive,” Rekart said.  Rekart suggested that only the access/egress road portion of the project be undertaken this year (estimate of $165,000).  After further discussion, however, it was determined that it would not be a good idea to proceed with road improvements without first knowing where a future addition might be placed.

School board member Michelle Farrell said she, too, “puts teachers way above facilities.”  Farrell also said she’s not convinced that the latest proposal is the right solution.  “It hasn’t even been vetted to the public, yet,” Farrell said.  Joanis agreed with Farrell’s comment, noting that the decision “has dragged to the 11th hour.”  “I’m not ready to make a decision on a $16 million dollar project that we just received,” at noontime today, Rekart said.  School board Vice Chair Stephanie Wimmer did not attend the meeting on January 7, nor was her opinion on the issue discussed at any point during the evening.

Senibaldi continued to emphasize his opinion, however, saying that he believes the proposal for a middle school addition was well-thought out and well planned.  “To do nothing will hurt the district in the long run, he said.  “This is going to create a credibility issue,” Senibaldi said, referring to the opinion voters will have of the school board.  Becoming increasingly aggravated, Senibaldi placed the blame for the school district’s current dilemma on the last two school boards.  Senibaldi also said he’s had enough of serving on facility committees and has no intention of serving on any similar committee in the future.  “I’m not going to waste my time,” he said.

School board members took no actual vote on the proposed addition to Windham Middle School.  The proposal died for lack of any action and will not be placed on the ballot this coming March.