$57.5 Million Proposal Heads to Lyme-Old Lyme Voters, as Packed Room Debates Board Oversight

Attendees pack the Board of Education conference room at Center School (CT Examiner)


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LYME/OLD LYME — After almost two hours of debate,  the Board of Education voted to send a request to borrow $57.5 million for school renovations to voters on November 8.

If approved, the borrowing will pay for planning the project and then installing new boilers, updated electrical systems and HVAC systems in Mile Creek Elementary, Lyme Consolidated School, Center School and Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School. The money will also be used to bring the buildings up to code where necessary, to install sprinklers in two of the buildings and make sure that all buildings are compliant with the American Disabilities Act. 

In addition, the plans include a build-out of additional classrooms at Mile Creek Elementary School — a decision prompted by enrollment projections estimating that elementary school enrollment will exceed the capacity of Mile Creek and Lyme Consolidated School in 2024-25.

The district expects to receive $9.7 million back in reimbursement from the state, reducing the total cost to about $48 million.

Questioning the process

Members of the public at Wednesday’s hearing questioned the planning process stretching back to 2019, when the board first began considering repairs and upgrades, which at the time were estimated to cost about $10 to $15 million.

In comments to the board, David Kelsey, a local resident who also chairs the town’s Board of Finance, and co-founded a large real estate private-equity investment company that owns and manages multifamily apartment properties, urged Board of Education members to start the process over –  which he said would not set the project back very far. 

“This process has been flawed from the very beginning,” said Kelsey. 

Kelsey told board members the process should have begun with a disinterested third party conducting an evaluation of what was needed, and that the Board of Education’s facilities committee should have determined the “scope” of the project. 

Instead, Kelsey said, the board had engaged an architectural firm that could bid on the project and potentially benefit from more costly renovations.

Jennifer Miller, who is current chair of the facilities committee, said the committee hired QA+M, the architectural firm that presented the board with an evaluation of the facilities and cost estimates, after putting the work out to bid.

Former Board of Education member Steve Cinami voiced concern about the proposal (CT Examiner)

But Board Chair Steven Wilson told CT Examiner in hindsight that he felt that the facilities committee could have been more involved in the planning process. 

The current proposal would also add 11 classrooms to the Mile Creek school, five more than Neviaser said were needed, at an additional cost of about $4 million to $6 million.

A local resident, Mona Colwell, questioned that decision, pointing out that the added cost amounted to ten percent of the total cost of the project — not an insignificant sum. 

“We’re not against new HVACs — we want them. We want new heating systems. We want our kids to be safe. But some people in our town can’t afford a $58 million project. We have people that are scrambling to buy groceries,” she said. 

Several community members questioned why it wouldn’t be possible to move kindergarteners and Pre-K students to the Center School. Board members and Neviaser said they had considered a similar option in earlier discussions but that certain concerns, such as the need to bus kindergarteners to the school, the possibility of not having enough classrooms in Center School and the need to move some of the alternative education programs to other spaces. Preliminary estimates showed that the cost would be about $59.9 million, or $45.5 million including state reimbursement. 

Other community members objected to the total cost of the project and said they believed that some of the items included in the $42 million “base project” — the lowest-cost option that QA+M presented to the Board — were not necessary, or could be done for less. 

A few also questioned the idea that interest rates would continue to go up, making the project cost more, and hypothesized that interest rates might actually lower over time. 

Steve Cinami, who previously chaired the facilities committee and works in the construction industry, questioned spending “$57 million on an HVAC system that no one has shown is needed will increase property values.”

He said that low taxes were one of the reasons people live in Old Lyme.
“What it will do is keep taxes artificially high, instead of reducing the tax burden to residents. A low mill rate is also another reason people seek to live in Old Lyme and Lyme,” said Cinami.

Others have come out in support of the project. 

In a meeting last week, supporters referred to the school system in Old Lyme as the “crown jewel” of the town and said it was an attraction for residents looking to move to the town.

Kim Thompson, a parent with a second-grader and a toddler, who graduated from Lyme-Old Lyme Schools in 2005, said she was part of the class just ahead of the previous building renovation project, and remembers walking on floors “stripped to concrete and carpet glue.” 

“While school is much more than just a building, our faculty and staff certainly deserve all the credit for the exceptional education that our children receive, those students, teachers and staff also deserve to learn and work in buildings that are well designed and properly maintained,” said Thompson. 

Teachers voice support for renovations

Multiple members of the Region Eighteen Teachers Association asked the board to approve the project. Heather Fried, a co-president of the association and a science teacher at the high school, said last week that it was distracting for teachers and students to have to take off and put on layers of clothing because of temperature changes, and that the limited space in the buildings was creating conditions that made it difficult to teach.  

“Many educators are providing critical support services to students in hallways — hallways — and shared classrooms,” said Freid. 

At the Wednesday meeting, ten teachers echoed concerns raised by Fried and asked the board to send the proposals to a town vote.  

Mercedes Alger, co-president of Region Eighteen Teacher’s Association, speaks in support of the proposal (CT Examiner)

“In the music room, the radiator blows out hot air while the window unit, the AC unit, blows out cold air. They’re in constant battle. And even with the AC on the lowest temperature and the highest speed setting, the room is still hot and humid, which is wasting a lot of electricity,” said Julia Hackett, music teacher at Mile Creek. 

Teachers spoke about having to teach in hallways and cafeterias and borrow other teachers’ classrooms because of a lack of space. 

“Some of the students I service for the Gifted and Talented program have IEPs of their own. And by teaching them in the hallway, it is compromising their confidentiality and privacy,” said Nila Kaczor, who teaches Gifted and Talented and 4th and 5th grade science at Mile Creek and Lyme Consolidated. 

“Every single classroom at Mile Creek is currently being used. If an additional classroom is needed to help maintain the district’s posted guidelines for class sizes, it is likely that the SRBI classroom will no longer be available, which would cause even more students to have to receive services in inadequate spaces,” said Francesca Fusaro, a fifth-grade teacher at Mile Creek. 

Other teachers talked about the noise from the window units, which one likened to a 1970s-era dishwasher and another compared to the sound of an airplane if the listener was sitting out on the wing. 

“I have a hearing impairment myself and have to wear a hearing aid. And I know several students who do the same or have auditory processing needs. It is nearly impossible to hear students speak above the HVAC systems,” said Kaczor. “I find myself straining all the time just to have a conversation with students.”

Union co-president Mercedes Alger, a fourth-grade teacher at Lyme Consolidated said that the “experts” who attended a meeting last week — including representatives of the firm Colliers International, a former building committee member on several earlier Lyme-Old Lyme school projects, and a former construction manager who also worked on the Lyme-Old Lyme High School project — had said the project was “fiscally responsible” and “in the community’s best interest.” 

Rebecca Tate, a fourth grade teacher at Mile Creek, said she understood the concerns about process that were being raised. But she also urged the board to send the referendum to the voters so that teachers and students wouldn’t have to wait any longer to have the conditions in the schools addressed. 

“What do I tell my students right now? Do I tell them, ‘Well, we want to ask a fourth person. We want to ask a fifth one. We want to ask a sixth one — when it’s 95 degrees?” said Tate “What I’m asking is, let’s please just take it to referendum and let the people vote on it because we are living this every day.” 

A third-party review?

Wilson told CT Examiner that according to the various experts the board had consulted, the $42 million project initially proposed as the “base scope” was the minimal cost of renovations at the four schools. He said that part of this cost came from the need to meet state requirements, and he said that the boilers and the air conditioning window units needed to be replaced. 

Earlier this month, when the board expressed concern about the $58 million estimate, Wilson asked that a third party evaluate the work by QA + M. 

Neviaser said that the district contracted with Colliers International for the third-party review. Neviaser called Colliers “completely disinterested.”

Chuck Warrington, director of project management at Colliers International, told the board that QA+M’s estimates were consistent with what they would expect for a school project in Connecticut, and described the board’s budget as “lean.” 

“The big chunk is the HVAC,” said Warrington. “You have unit ventilators that are totally outdated. We don’t even install those. They’re probably 20 years out of service. You’re going to get to the point where Ron Turner can’t even service those pretty soon.” 

At the Wednesday meeting, Wilson asked whether it would be possible to hire a disinterested third-party not to simply review the work done by QA+M, as Colliers had done, but to present their own evaluation of the needs. 

“My thought is that it would make the referendum go more smoothly,” said Wilson, saying he felt that it would satisfy both the people who wanted the project to move forward quickly and those who wanted an additional opinion. 

Miller responded that the board had already received estimates from three firms, all of which were very similar, and Neviaser warned that, depending on the cost of an additional estimate, the board might need to put the work out to bid, delaying the process.

Both Miller and board member Suzanne Thompson said that they didn’t believe that an additional estimate would significantly change the numbers they had been given. 

“Mile Creek is falling apart. My daughter did not enjoy Gifted and Talented at all because she was out in a noisy hallway. She wasn’t engaged and I’m really frustrated with that. And I know it’s going to cost a lot, but for Pete’s sake — I can’t believe that we can’t figure out a way to say, ‘Cripes, the buildings are falling apart and need to be upgraded,’” said Thompson. 

Thompson said the building committee, which the board will appoint if the referendum passes, will be responsible for finding cost savings as the project goes forward. 

Wilson told CT Examiner that when it came time to choose the building committee, he planned to appoint people who would make responsible decisions about how the funds were being spent. 

“It’s my expectation and plan that the people in the building committee will be watching every penny and constantly be thinking about whether we’re doing it with value in mind,” he told CT Examiner. 

A question of time

For the Mile Creek project to be eligible this year for state reimbursement, the referendum would need to be held no later than November 15, meaning that the district needed to approve the bond amount by September 15 – but Wilson told CT Examiner the district could apply again next year.

On Wednesday, Board member Laura Dean-Frazier made a motion to put the hiring of a third party evaluation on the agenda. The motion died without a second from another member. 

Board member Christopher Staab said he wanted the referendum held on November 8 –  election day –  a target raised earlier by Kelsey, who said the referendum should be held when the largest number of people would turn out to vote on the project. 

Board member Martha Shoemaker expressed concern that a Nov. 8 referendum would overburden the Registrar of Voters, given the general election. But Wilson said that he had spoken to the Registrar, who indicated that holding votes on the same day would not be a problem. 

The board voted 7-1 in favor of holding a referendum for $57.5 million on November 8, with Staab voting against and Dean-Frazier abstaining. 

Staab told CT Examiner that he felt the $58 million project included “a lot of wants” rather than necessities, and that there wasn’t enough information about the details of what the project would bring to the schools. 

“With the cost of everything so high, with people struggling with inflation … there’s too much other needs from the community to go spend $58 million on wants, not needs,” said Staab. 

But he said the board didn’t know any details about the cost or the timeframe of bringing in a third party to review the proposal, and that they needed to meet the deadline for state reimbursement. He also said he feared that a failed referendum would set them back an additional year. 

“We’re frankly out of time,” he said.

David Kelsey is the primary funder of CT Examiner, but was not involved in the reporting of this story

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.