DURHAM — The Durham Board of Selectmen declined to take possession of the Korn School building from the Region 13 School District, citing concerns with the cost to renovate and operate the elementary school.
Region 13 offered the former Frances E. Korn Elementary School to Durham at no cost, saying that if the town doesn’t take the building, the district would demolish it. The school board made the offer a year ago and set a deadline of March 31 for a decision.
First Selectman Laura Francis attempted assemble enough information to bring the question to a referendum: Should the town take the building, or let the school district raze it?
Francis was scheduled to present to the Board of Finance on Tuesday to request an appropriation of funds to bring the building up to code. But at Monday’s council meeting, she acknowledged that she could not find a way to accomplish that at a reasonable cost.
Selectman John Szewczyk had said at a previous meeting that he thought it was only reasonable to propose the idea to voters if the initial renovation and operating costs were in the range of the $700,000 that it would cost to demolish the building. But Francis said that the cost would be more in the range of $2.5 to $3.5 million — and that was based on estimates from 2014 and 2018, meaning that the cost could easily reach $3 to $4 million with inflation and the current increase in costs for construction, she said.
“Until this community is willing to fund — even if it’s over several years time — the entire estimated cost of what that building is going to need, I think it would be irresponsible for us to take it,” Francis said. “Because with the privilege of owning a building of that size, and all that it would do for our community, we cannot ignore that the costs are going to be significant.”
After the school closed in 2018, Durham voters rejected a plan for the town to bond $7 million to buy the school and renovate it into a community center. The Board of Selectmen had discussed revisiting that idea with voters, but with the renovations completed over a number of years.
In this plan, the town would have brought the building up to code so that the town could use it right away to replace the community center and some of the storage space that it is renting.
Francis said at a previous meeting that she thought voters should decide on the issue, but she realized that the initial costs would be much higher than the selectmen had anticipated. Francis said she was especially concerned with the idea that the town would use its building reserve fund.
“No fiscal advisor would tell you to drain your savings to buy a house,” she said.
Szewczyk and Selectman George Eames agreed that the cost was too high, and the board voted unanimously to reject the offer.
Eames said the selectmen considered the offer for a year and were told the plans would require code reviews and new estimates, but the board never “pulled the trigger” because they were reluctant to spend money on more studies for a project that voters had already rejected.
“If this was a private enterprise private undertaking, you could pull the trigger on this thing over a year ago and do it for a reasonable amount of money,” Eames said. “But because of the structure of town government and state government, with some of the costs and quoting and things that have to be done, it does add costs.”