LYME/OLD LYME — A project to upgrade four Lyme-Old Lyme school buildings is projected to cost taxpayers between $40 and $45 million, according to estimates provided the architectural firm QA + M on Wednesday night.
Earlier 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.
On Wednesday, Rusty Malik, a principal at QA +M, presented the Board of Education with several options projected to cost between $41.8 and $44.5 million.
The district will need to bond for the project, and voters will need to approve whatever option the Board of Education chooses through a referendum. Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said at a community forum in late September that he hopes the referendum will go out to voters in May 2022.
The proposal comes on the heels of a project, approved last year in a 6-3 vote by the Board of Education, to install an artificial turf field. Money for the field, which cost approximately $2.3 million, came from the district’s undesignated fund.
Basic repairs or renovate “as new”
Malik first presented what he called the “base scope” — the minimum that would need to be done in order to bring the building into compliance with existing codes. These included upgrades to the HVAC system, installing central air throughout the buildings, replacing the boiler and putting in a back-up heating system. It also includes updating the fire response systems, making sure the buildings are ADA accessible, upgrading security and adding parking at some of the buildings.
In Malik’s estimate, the cost of making the minimum necessary upgrades would be approximately $44 million. He said that the district could expect to receive about $2 million in state reimbursement.
Malik said that the Board could also decide to make further changes to some of the buildings that would be eligible for increased reimbursement from the state. The state will provide additional funding to districts that decide to renovate their buildings “as new” — a designation that requires the district bring the buildings up to code, remediate any hazardous materials and sign off that the building will not need further renovation for an additional 20 years.
According to Malik, the district also faces a potential space issue. Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said in a special meeting on Wednesday that enrollment is projected to increase from the current 1,310 to a total of 1,445 in five years. Neviaser told CT Examiner that the enrollment projections came from the New England School Development Council.
The district is projected to have 592 K-5 students enrolled by 2024-25. The current maximum capacity of Lyme Consolidated and Mile Creek, according to QA + M, is 570 students.
Option 1: Moving 5th Grade to the Middle School
One option that Malik offered was the idea of moving the 5th-grade classes from Lyme Consolidated and Mile Creek schools to the Middle School. The shift would move the 5th graders into some of the classrooms currently used for other programs, such as the academic lab, some special education rooms and the science olympiad room. The plan also includes building a 3,000 square foot addition next to the chorus room that would become a new band room.
This plan was estimated to cost about $55.5 million, with a state reimbursement at about $11 million, for a total cost of $44.5 million.
Board members Stacey Leonardo and Suzanne Thompson pushed back against the idea of combining 5th-grade students with grades 6-8 in the middle school.. Leonardo said she believed that the difference in maturity levels between 5th graders and 7th or 8th graders would worry parents. Thompson said that she was concerned about the idea that 5th graders would have to ride the buses with the middle schoolers.
Malik said that it would be possible to configure the school building so that 5th graders were kept in a separate area from the upper grades. Neviaser said it might be possible to devise bus routes to avoid placing 5th graders with middle schoolers.
Board member Rick Goulding said he was concerned about losing the classrooms for the district’s special programs like science olympiad. He said he wanted to make sure that “student experience” in the district remained of a high quality.
Option 2: Additions to the Elementary School
A second option would be to leave the current grade configurations as is, but to build additions to Lyme Consolidated School and Mile Creek School to accommodate the growing student population.
This plan would include a 7,500 square foot addition to Mile Creek School for the 5th grade and for support services that would be located where the outdoor classroom is currently. It would also include a 5,000 square foot addition to Lyme Consolidated School for additional 5th grade classrooms.
Malik estimated this project would cost about $55.4 million, and that state reimbursement would be about $12 million, for a total cost of $43.4 million.
Option 3: Move Kindergarten to Center School
Board members also asked about a third option, which would place pre-K and kindergarten programs at the Center School and move the Board of Education offices to the Middle School.
Neviaser said one of the problems with this idea was that currently, in the two elementary schools, each of the kindergarten classrooms currently has its own bathroom. He said that moving the kindergarten to Center School would either mean that there would be no bathrooms in the classrooms, or it would require a “huge undertaking” to install the bathrooms.
Another problem, he said, was that Center School currently houses the transition program and the post-graduate program, which would need to be moved to another space. Finally, he said, placing pre-K and kindergarten in Center School would put that building on the edge of its capacity limits.
“The number of kindergartens you would have, and then you add the pre-K — all of a sudden this building is busting at the seams as well,” said Neviaser.
QA + M did not calculate the total cost of this option. Angela Cahill, an associate at the firm, told CT Examiner that she thought moving the kindergarten to Center School would cost more than the other options.
Making the decision
Malik said that the board should aim to make a decision by its December 1 meeting on which of the options the district wants to pursue.
Both Goulding and Board Chair Diane Linderman said that the improvements that QA + M had presented were necessary ones.
“It would be very hard for someone in the public to say it’s not appropriate for there to be a fire system at Mile Creek that is to code,” said Rick Goulding. “It really is a bare boned approach … we’re not talking about paving the hallways in gold.”
Linderman said that the district needed to pay attention to the enrollment increases that were coming when they considered what to do about the buildings.
“We don’t want to end up going through a renovation …. and then instantaneously, it’s filled to capacity. We can’t ignore the fact that we have enrollment issues and space issues,” she said.
Neviaser emphasized that the district didn’t want to have to increase class sizes, which he said was one of the reasons for the district’s success.
“One of the things that has been considered sacred here for many years is our class size,” said Neviaser.
Malik said that the longer the district delays, the higher the price tag, since raw material and labor costs increase every year. Neviaser pointed out that by the time the project went out to bond and the work began, the buildings would have gone nearly 25 years without improvements being made.
“We already know our equipment is struggling to keep up,” said Neviaser.
If approved, the construction would begin in 2023, and the construction would happen at a rate of approximately one building per year.
“It’s not to say that we need to rush, but we also can’t delay,” said Linderman.
There will be a community forum about the project on November 17 at 6 p.m. in the middle school auditorium. The next Board of Education meeting is December 1.