LYME-OLD LYME — Local parents voiced concerns on Wednesday evening about a $42 to $52 million facilities project that could potentially change the ways that grade levels are distributed across the different school buildings.
In a presentation to the Board of Education, Rusty Malik, a partner at the architectural firm QA + M, laid out six options for the community to consider. The options ranged from upgrades to HVAC and heating systems and accessibility upgrades to the building of a new school.
Malik said that the most basic of the options — an estimated cost of $42 million to the district — would include upgrades to the HVAC and heating systems, updating the fire response systems, adding parking and making sure the buildings are ADA accessible.
“We didn’t go through and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to replace everything,’” said Malik. “We looked at it and said, ‘Okay, let’s focus on the things that need to be done to create a safe environment and an accessible environment in the schools.’”
But Malik said that this option would not address a predicted increase in enrollment that would fill its elementary schools to bursting in the next 5-10 years.
Malik suggested that the district could make additional renovations to the buildings that would address the increasing enrollment and also garner the district more state reimbursement for the project.
Parents were particularly concerned about one option that would move the fifth graders to Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School, despite Malik and Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser saying that it would be possible to keep the fifth graders separate from the seventh and eighth graders both in school and on the buses.
“I am personally supportive of anything other than 5th grade going to the middle school,” said one parent. Others in the auditorium applauded.
Another parent stepped forward to advocate for a $43.3 million option that would build expansions onto Lyme Consolidated and Mile Creek to accommodate the additional students. She said it made sense to continue with a system that already worked well for the town.
“It’s working for us. We’re a highly regarded school district that people love,” she said. Her remarks were also met by applause.
Two parents asked if it might be possible to revert Center School back into an elementary school building. Malik said the firm had not considered this option, and Neviaser said the district would need to find additional space to house the programs already in that building.
Another possible option would move the kindergarten to Center School along with the Pre-K. This would cost $45.5 million. The district could also decide to move both the Kindergarten to Center School and the 5th grade to the middle school, leaving the two elementary schools with only grades 1-4. This would cost the district approximately $51.5 million.
One parent also questioned whether moving the kindergarten to Center School would require the district to hire another administrator. Neviaser agreed that this was something the district needed to consider.
Malik said that the final option — building a new school — was a purely hypothetical idea, that would have to be presented to the state to demonstrate that the firm had considered all other possibilities. This option would cost the most — an approximate $62.7 million to the district.
Neviaser said that the district does not own any additional land for a school, and would either need to purchase land or find space on the existing campuses for that option.
Neviaser explained that the district planned to bond for the project. He said that although the district has paid out of its undesignated fund for smaller projects, the size of this project would make that impossible.
“Within our annual budget, we don’t have the capacity to find $44 million. Our budget isn’t even $44 million,” said Neviaser.
The district budgeted about $3 million in debt service payments for the 2021-22 school year, or 11 percent of the budget, according to the district’s budget book. That number is currently scheduled to decrease yearly over the next 10 years as the bonds are repaid.
Nevaiser told CT Examiner that he didn’t yet know the affect of the new project on the district’s yearly debt service. He said that figure would be determined by the construction schedule, but that the overall yearly debt service would definitely be higher than what it is currently.
A number of parents questioned the accuracy of the district’s enrollment projections. Neviaser replied that the enrollment projections have fallen short every year for the last 4-5 years, and that the projections show a trend of increasing enrollment that should continue for the next 5-10 years.
Neviaser said in a special meeting earlier this month that enrollment is projected to increase from the current 1,310 to a total of 1,445 in five years, according to projections from the National Education School Development Council.
According to Neviaser, 42 new students enrolled at the high school this year, representing almost a 10 percent increase in the school’s student population.
Neviaser said he believed that Region 18 was receiving more students partially because it had been one of the only districts that had offered in-person learning for the entirety of the 2020-21 school year.
“The fact that we remained in school last year, when many districts didn’t — we heard that from many parents coming here,” said Neviaser.
While one community member suggested eliminating the universal Pre-K program in order to reduce enrollment, three mothers praised the program. One said she would like to see a free program expanded to include three-year-olds.
“It is an incredible help to us,” said one parent. “It’s just an awesome, awesome program.”
Neviaser said that the district hopes to have a referendum on the project in May 2022.
One or two people expressed concern about the lack of input from the community. Mona Colwell, recent candidate for school board and parent in the district, said that after hearing about all the district efforts to attract more children, the idea that the district now has too many children is “hard to swallow.”
She added that she hopes the community — including those who hadn’t come to the presentation — is able to understand and process all of the information about the project.
“To bring the community on this late in the game, when we’re down to 5 options and now you’re asking for input … this is a lot,” she said.
Another community member suggested that the district create a citizen ad hoc committee to evaluate the options, similar to what was done after the referendum for the high school failed.
Neviaser told CT Examiner that he did not expect the Board of Education to choose an option before February at the earliest. He said there would be more opportunities for the community to give feedback about the project in the coming months. He also said it would be a continual topic at the Board of Education meetings.
The next Board of Education meeting is Wednesday, December 1 at 6:30 p.m.