School Construction Options Narrowed Down

November 1, 2013

by Barbara O’Brien

Windham Superintendent Winfried Feneberg presented three final options for dealing with the school district’s space crunch, during a special school board meeting held on October 29.  Originally, about 10 options had been put on the table.

Before detailing his recommendations, Feneberg commented on the district’s over-crowding and high number of students in many classrooms.  “This is not going to improve in the foreseeable future,” Feneberg said, noting that there might be a slight drop in student enrollment six years down the road, but even that was uncertain.

Referring to last year’s warrant article proposing a new seventh and eighth grade school on school-district owned property off London Bridge Road; a concept that did not win sufficient voter support, Feneberg said, “Last year’s proposal was probably the right proposal, but it wasn’t supported sufficiently by voters.”  Feneberg was not yet Windham’s superintendent at the time the warrant article went to the ballot last March.

Despite Feneberg’s support of last year’s concept, it is not being recommended as a proposal for next March.  Administrators have said they don’t feel a similar proposal will pass voter scrutiny at this time.  The three final options put forth by Feneberg earlier this week do include:

  1. Doing nothing this year
  2. A phased construction approach at the existing Windham Middle School
  3. Building an addition to Windham High School and moving eighth graders from the middle school to the high school.

Feneberg said that doing nothing next March and putting any construction project on hold until 2015 would not change current class sizes substantially.  It would, however, mean that teachers who currently travel from room to room, rather than having a classroom dedicated to that particular subject, would be required to continue doing so.  School board chairman Michael Joanis said he doesn’t really consider this option to be “doing nothing,” but rather, “waiting another year.”

The phased approach to expanding Windham Middle School has been bandied about for several years already, but has repeatedly fallen into disfavor before it made it to the ballot box.  According to Feneberg, members of the school facilities committee are recommending that phase one of this proposal include 14 additional classrooms, plus a multi-purpose room.  The three-floor structure would cost approximately $14.5 million in construction costs, plus an allowance of $3 million for site work.  Were this proposal to gain sufficient voter support, it would allow Windham Middle School to gain State approval as a middle school, rather than an elementary school, as it is now.  It would also allow somewhat smaller class sizes, he said.  In order for the school to gain official middle school status, technology education and family/consumer science education must be included in the curriculum.  Middle school approval also requires additional lab science spaces.

Option 3, which involves relocating the eighth grade from Windham Middle School to the high school, includes the construction of an 11-classroom, plus mini-gym, two-story addition to the high school, which opened its doors only four years ago.  The estimated cost of the addition is slightly less than $8 million.  The cons listed by Feneberg include no improvements to the existing middle school and little change in class sizes.  Also, more staff, including administrators would be needed.  “It can be done, but it’s not a trivial matter,” Feneberg told school board members.  There would also be a negative impact on high school students, he said, both educationally and culturally.  When this suggestion has come up in the past, it has not received much support from townspeople.

Feneberg was obviously not in favor of the idea of moving eighth graders to the high school, although it was on his short list of possibilities.  “Do we want to disrupt what we have at the high school?” he asked, citing the excellent reputation the school has earned in just a few years.  It is rare for an eighth grade to be included at a high school, he said, and, usually, only when a school district is experiencing declining enrollment.  “That is not the case in Windham,” he said.

As for the opinions of school board members, Dennis Senibaldi was the only one who expressed much interest in finding out more about the possible relocation of the eighth grade to the high school.  Senibaldi did not like the idea of “doing nothing,” saying that he feels putting off any construction for another year sends the wrong message to voters.

School board member Jerome Rekart was not supportive of the proposed change at Windham High School.  “Why spend $8 million and get the same size classes?” he wanted to know.  “The idea doesn’t look enticing to me, at all,” he said.  Senibaldi agreed that the decision should be based on more than just the financial impact.  Chairman Joanis also did not like the idea of relocating eighth graders.  “It’s not realistic to think you can accommodate the needs of all these students at the high school,” Joanis said.

School board member Michelle Farrell said she wants residents to understand that “doing nothing” is not a free option and that there are financial ramifications to that choice.  “Windham is still growing and needs to accommodate the additional students,” she said.  “At some point, we have to make a step forward.”  Farrell also nixed the idea of putting eighth graders at Windham High School, saying the approach feels like a Band-aid to her.  School board vice-chairman Stephanie Wimmer did not attend the meeting.

Only three local residents took the time to sit through the two-hour discussion.  Bob Coole, who regularly attends both town and school meetings, was totally against putting eighth graders in the same school with the older students.  “This would cast eighth graders adrift into a sea of nothingness,” Coole said.  “It’s not a good idea,” he said, adding that he would recommend that the school board puts forth a proposal to add on to Windham Middle School.

School board members are expected to narrow down the concepts further during their next meeting on Tuesday, November 5.  The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. and will be held at the Community Development Building, next to Town Hall.  The public is encouraged to attend.