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Quick Decision on $40+ Million School Renovations Meets Caution from Lyme-Old Lyme Board

LYME/OLD LYME — The Board of Education voted on Wednesday to exclude from consideration any district-wide construction projects that would involve moving fifth graders to the middle school. 

The vote eliminated two of the six options that Rusty Malik, a principal at the architectural firm QA + M, presented to the Board of Education in November to upgrade four of the district’s five school buildings. 

At the meeting, Board of Education members said that they had heard opposition from community members to the idea of having the fifth graders together with the older students. 

“It’s a real big deal to move fifth graders into a four-year middle school,” said board member Suzanne Thompson. “Even though it may make logistical sense, emotionally I don’t think the parents, the kids are ready for that.”

The remaining four options range from the most basic of repairs, to changes in school composition, to the construction of a  new school building. 

One of the remaining options would be to renovate the mechanical structures of the building without any additional changes. This project would include upgrades to the HVAC and heating systems, updating the fire response systems, adding parking and making sure the buildings are ADA accessible, and would cost an estimated $42 million to the district. 

But Malik said at the November meeting that this option would not address a predicted increase in enrollment that would fill its elementary schools to bursting in the next 5 to10 years.

Another option would move the kindergarten to Center School, freeing up more space in the elementary schools. Neviaser said that since Center School stopped hosting grades 3 to 5, the district’s plan in case of an enrollment increase had been to move kindergarten to Center School and create an early learning center. This option would cost an estimated $45.5 million. 

A third option envisions building additions onto Mile Creek and Lyme Consolidated School without changing the grade compositions of the schools, which would cost $43.3 million.  

Neviaser pushed back against the idea of building onto Lyme Consolidated, which he said would be nearly impossible given the space that the school has available now.

“Adding onto Lyme School is going to be an absolute nightmare. There is no space up there as is,” said Neviaser. 

The fourth option, to build an entirely new elementary school building, would cost the most — about $62.7 million. 

The board also considered eliminating the option of the new elementary building, but ultimately decided to keep it on the table. Board member Martha Shoemaker said she wanted to take some extra time to consider that proposal. Based on her past experience, Shoemaker said, it was sometimes more cost effective to build new rather than renovate older structures. 

Board member Jenn Miller said that if the district was to build a new elementary school on property the district already owned, it would create a long commute for students living in Lyme. Board member Chris Staab pointed out that if the district were to build in a different area, it would cost money to purchase the land. 

Neviaser encouraged the board to narrow the selection of options in the near future so that Malik could produce a more detailed breakdown of the costs of the project. Malik would then need to present the plan to the state of Connecticut’s Office of School Construction Grants & Review. 

In his presentation, Malik explained that the district would need to submit an application to the state of Connecticut by June 30, or delay an additional year, a timeline that some board members said was hurried. 

Laura Dean-Frazier and Shoemaker said they were concerned that there might be an alternate configuration of the school buildings that hadn’t yet been considered.

Chair Steve Wilson and Staab expressed scepticism that, given the high cost of building materials, this was the best year to undertake a new project. 

Staab asked whether it would be possible to maintain the buildings under the current budget until the district had a better grasp on how enrollments might change.

“I think we really need to assess — is this the right time to do this?” said Staab. “We’re talking about major construction in multiple schools to be able to do this. Do we really need this?” 

The board plans to hold a special meeting later this month to further discuss the remaining possibilities.

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