WESTPORT – School officials are weighing the construction of a new Long Lots Elementary School while keeping the current building as a “swing” space for classrooms, but millions of dollars in potential maintenance costs and added traffic to the neighborhood may outweigh the benefits of the idea.
Last fall, architecture firm SLAM Collaborative projected significantly higher enrollment at the elementary level in Westport Public Schools than previous projections – especially at Long Lots, which could jump from 601 students in 2022 to 687 students by the 2026-27 school year. To accommodate the growth, the school board is deciding whether to renovate the 70-year-old Long Lots building or construct a new school.
At a Monday meeting, school board members, Long Lots School Building Committee members and district administration debated building a new 83,850-square-foot school to accommodate expected enrollment increases, as well as the district’s Stepping Stones Preschool, which is currently housed at the crowded Coleytown Elementary School, while also maintaining the current building to be used as a “swing space” to house Westport students during future school renovations.
But maintaining the current building could mean increased traffic for neighbors and additional costs for the district.
“Not all districts have the luxury of having a school they’re sunsetting for swing space,” Scarice said. “It’s just too ideal that it seems to work out that way, but we had to expect there would be some complications.”
At the meeting, Edie Anderson, whose house abuts Long Lots, said potential increases in traffic and density from two schools were “too much” for the nearby residential neighborhood.
“I understand wanting to have a new, shiny building, and I understand wanting to have the Stepping Stones program also partake in that,” Anderson said. “But I really think you need to consider what you’re doing in terms of density and piling on [to] what is a very nice, quiet neighborhood.”
On Tuesday, Anderson told CT Examiner that the neighborhood is “very accepting,” but that the changes could impact quality of life for neighbors.
“I don’t want people to think this is a ‘not in my backyard’ argument. That isn’t what it is,” she said. “This is a ‘do the right thing for the whole community’ argument.”
Anderson said additional traffic from buses, cars and commercial vehicles could aggravate an already dangerous situation on the nearby Hyde Lane.
“Heading down Hyde Lane is not easy. The parents block the road in both directions,” Anderson said of Long Lots pickups and drop-offs. “… It’s not a safe situation.”
Anderson said she understands the school board, committee and administration are “in a bind,” but explained that other elementary schools have space and pointed to redistricting as a potential fix.
“Redistricting, which I know is under consideration, needs to be seriously considered because continuing to pile on here is kind of crazy,” she said.
In January, school board members discussed potential redistricting timelines to address increasing enrollment, but have not finalized plans. In the meantime, the building committee has hired architects Svigals + Partners and construction managers Newfield Construction to provide official Long Lots construction recommendations by the end of July.
Jay Keenan, chair of the building committee, said he asked engineers to investigate short-term maintenance that the current building may need if it is used as a swing space for future projects, like a potential Coleytown Elementary School renovation. If Westport keeps the current building for the next seven years, he said, mechanical maintenance alone could cost as much as $6 million.
“Once we get past that three- to four-year window, I think we’re already beyond the useful life of a lot of equipment in that school, so you run the risk of things actually breaking down and not working,” he said.
Keenan said that leaving the current building on the property while constructing a new one could be a “logistical nightmare” in terms of staggering pickup and drop-off times, as well as constructing parking and entrances.
Building committee member Don O’Day emphasized the cost to the school district.
“You’d be spending millions to maintain a building as a swing space for a few years,” O’Day said.
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice said he was crossing his fingers and hoping to use the current building as a swing space, but acknowledged potential challenges.
“The reality of it is there’s going to be some challenges – not nightmares, challenges – that we have to consider,” he said.