LYME-OLD LYME — On Thursday night, the architecture firm QA + M presented the initial findings of its study of the Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools.
In June, the district approved a contract with the Farmington-based firm for $45,850 to evaluate the need for improvements to Mile Creek, Lyme School, Center school, as well as the district middle school. The study was paid for with federal funding.
At the meeting, Rusty Malik, a principal at QA +M and Angela Cahill, an architect for the firm, discussed the current conditions of the buildings and offered suggestions about how the district could address the necessary improvements and repairs.
According to Lyme-Old Lyme School Superintendent Ian Neviaser, the school buildings with the exception of the high school were last renovated between 2001 and 2003. The high school, he said, was renovated 7 or 8 years ago.
Malik estimated that the life of certain mechanical equipment in a school building is usually between 10 and 15 years.
Malik said that because the school buildings required mechanical improvements, including upgraded boilers, that are not reimbursable by the state, the district might consider renovating the buildings to what the state considers “as new,” to secure additional grant funding through the Office of State Construction Grants and Review.
“[If] we repair a whole bunch of stuff and replace a lot of existing equipment, the state’s going to say, ‘Well, great, I’m glad you’re doing that, but these items aren’t eligible,” said Malik.
In a call with CT Examiner, Angela Cahill explained that an “as new” renovation would require the district to bring the buildings up to code, to remediate any hazardous materials and to sign off that the building will not need further renovation for an additional 20 years.
Cahill said that the firm had not yet calculated whether renovating to a standard of “as new,” would provide cost savings for the district, but at the meeting, Malik suggested that it might be worth considering.
“In [Region 18’s] case, it might be an advantage especially because of the mechanical systems that we are going to be looking at,” said Malik. “Those would be ineligible under any other category other than ‘renovate as new.’”
The current state reimbursement rate for qualifying renovation is 36.43 percent of the project’s cost.
Asked whether the district’s annual surpluses might be used to fund the school renovations, Neviaser said that he anticipated that the cost of renovations would be bonded, but that the decision would ultimately be a decision for the Board of Education.
“Most likely the answer will be no based on our original estimates of a multi million dollar project. We most likely will not use the monies in our reserve fund for capital and non recurring expenditures either as that is not the intention of that fund,” Neviaser said in an email to CT Examiner.
Old Lyme First Selectman Timothy Griswold told CT Examiner that he did expect there would be an effect on the mill rate if the schools ended up bonding for the facilities upgrades, but he said the impact “may not be that profound,” depending on the timing and the amount of the bond. He said that any possibility of getting reimbursement from the state, or of using dollars from the federal American Rescue Plan, should be considered.
Griswold said that although the town had spent a significant sum of money on the buildings, after 15 to 20 years the structures needed the upgrades. He suggested that the district could hold open houses to show people the deficiencies in the current school buildings.
“Deferred maintenance is not a good idea. You want to keep up with things,” he said. “Some of these projects would undoubtedly exceed what you could do in a budget year.”
Neviaser said at Thursday’s meeting that he hopes to have the project out to a referendum by May 2022, and to possibly submit a request for state reimbursement by June 30.
Cahill said that some of the mechanical upgrades under consideration include updated HVAC systems, installing central air, replacing boilers, hot water heaters and unit ventilators.
Cahill said the firm also wanted to take into account Lyme-Old Lyme’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Given that Old Lyme is a shoreline community, she said the firm would also focus on improving the building’s resilience to storm damage.
Community members who attended the meeting raised the question of geothermal energy. Malik said the firm would perform a cost-benefit analysis on the use of geothermal, taking into account performance standards from the state.
Neviaser said he was open to the use of geothermal energy. The high school, he said, is already heated and cooled using geothermal wells.
“It’s definitely something we’re interested in. It’s worked very well for us,” he said.
Exterior improvements are expected to include added parking in the rear of the Center School, a modified Lyme Street entrance at the Middle School and replacing pavement and markings. Cahill said the biggest challenge would be Lyme Consolidated. She said that while there was a “very large desire” for more parking and drop-off space, the site was “extremely limited.”
One member of the public at Thursday’s meeting recommended that the buildings be reviewed by someone who understands the needs of students with disabilities. Another requested an enclosed walkway to protect students from having to walk to their buses in bad weather.
Cahill said that the buildings also needed certain interior improvements, including upgrades to classrooms and toilet fixtures, replacing finishes and upgraded security.
Malik encouraged attendees at the meeting to think about ways the classrooms, facilities and hallways could be modified to reflect a more 21st century learning model. He offered examples of libraries that included makerspaces and media centers, high-tech labs and hallways filled with educational displays.
Malik said there would be focus groups of parents, students and school administrators to discuss how the schools should look and feel.
He said that the firm would also conduct an enrollment study to ensure that space within the buildings was used efficiently. Cahill said that Mile Creek in particular needed to be evaluated to see if the space could be more efficiently used.
Malik said that a particular challenge for Lyme-Old Lyme schools was that the district offered more specialized programs compared to other districts, which translates into a need for more space.
Current enrollment numbers show that the district middle school is at 59 percent capacity, Center School is at 72.5 percent capacity and K to 5 schools are at a combined 86 percent capacity. Maximum enrollment projections show that, by the year 2028-29, K-5 enrollment could exceed the buildings’ capacity by 76 students.
QA + M will present their findings to the Board of Education at their meeting on Nov. 3. There will be a second presentation to the community on Nov. 17.