DURHAM/MIDDLEFIELD — The Region 13 school district is “presently in a dilemma” over what to do with John Lyman Elementary School, chair of the board of education Lucy Petrella said in a meeting on Tuesday night.
In November, the board asked voters in both towns to approve the closure of the K-3 school in response to declining enrollment. The vote needed to be approved by both towns in the district. Durham voted to close the school, but Middlefield, where the school is located, voted against the closure.
The board then asked voters to approve a bond of $7.5 million to replace boilers and exhaust fans, buy new playground equipment and bring the building up to code. On Tuesday, voters — mainly driven by Durham residents — rejected that plan as well.
As such, the district now finds itself with its hands tied — unable to close the school, but also without the funds for the repairs necessary to keep it open.
Superintendent Doug Schuch said that there were several avenues the district could pursue. One would be to ask voters to bond an amount less than $7.5 million, which would take care of at least some of the necessary upgrades. Another would be to ask voters again to approve the closure of the elementary school.
Board member Jason Stone said that decreasing the bond amount would mean sacrificing certain necessary repairs.
“We went through it. You pretty much need all that money. If not, you’re going to need to go back to bonding another two years down the road,” said Stone.
“I think if you bring another bonding referendum, it’s going to get shut down again,” added board member Amanda Betty. “Most of Durham wanted to close the school. They’re not going to vote to allocate money to it.”
Board member James Roraback said that he wanted to have another referendum to close the school in November, at the same time as the governor’s election, to draw in maximum participation from voters.
Schuch said that it might be possible to appeal to the state legislature for help. He also raised the possibility for the board to take a particular action, such as closing the school, and hope that the district would prevail in the case of a lawsuit.
“We’re at the point where we need to explore all the options,” said Schuch.
Schuch told CT Examiner that he wasn’t yet sure how those options would work, but that he was planning to explore them and report back to the board at the next meeting on February 23.
Including the funds in the yearly budget would also be a possibility, although not one that Schuch imagines would be feasible, since the district is already asking for a 4.5 percent increase, and the cost of repairs to Lyman would be an additional $7.5 million.
Schuch said that the district had been putting aside funds every year that could be used in an emergency — the state allows districts to save up to two percent of their budget
However, he said that school district budgets tend to be fairly tight. When a chiller failed at the high school, he said, the district had to use American Rescue Plan dollars to cover the cost — $237,000, according to finance director Kim Neubig. Without the federal money, Schuch said, they may have had to borrow from another area of the budget, or ask the towns.
Schuch said he understood that it can be easy to take it for granted that the systems in the school buildings were going to last. However, he said, if something did break and it disrupted schooling for a period of time, people in the community would be upset.
“Trust me, if something broke down and we couldn’t fix it immediately … people would be furious,” he said.