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School board wants new building

WINSTED — After a two-hour public hearing and meeting at Town Hall on Saturday, March 3, the Board of Education voted to ask the Board of Selectmen to form a building committee in order to pursue building a new school building on the grounds of Pearson School, along with closing Hinsdale Elementary School and Batcheller School once construction has been completed.The vote, which took place at the end of the meeting, was six to two to form the committee.Board Chairman Susan Hoffnagle, along with board members Christine Royer, Richard Dutton, Joseph Hanecak, Monique Parks-Abreu and Mari-Ellen Valyo voted for the motion.Board members James Roberts and Carol Palomba voted against the motion. Brian Shaughnessy was not present at the meeting.The vote came in light of a report issued by district consultant Joseph Castagnola, a former superintendent for the New Fairfield school district, who was hired by the board to issue a report about the possibility of closing a school building.Consultant’s reportCastagnola pulled no punches in what he found in his research.“Each of the school buildings is in pretty rough shape,” Castagnola said. “There are a number of issues facing all of them relating to safety, logistics and infrastructure. There are also a number of issues relating to how the district should configure grade levels in each building.”Castagnola cited a previously made report about what it would take to renovate the three school buildings, created by O’Riordan Migani Architects of Seymour.Castagnola said it would cost $9.7 million to fully renovate Batcheller School, $8.3 million to fully renovate Hinsdale School and $15.5 million to renovate Pearson School.“Those numbers are astronomical,” Castagnola said. “Without some sort of state support for the funding, it becomes unbearable for the town to fund it.”Castagnola said Batcheller and Hinsdale schools should be closed and a new school building should be built on Pearson School property.He suggested that, in order to move forward on the project, the board vote to recommend to the selectmen to form a school building committee in order to push the process forward before the state’s deadline for building projects of June 30.Castagnola explained that the board needed to submit a plan to the state by June 30 in order to take advantage of the state’s current reimbursement rate of constructing a new school building, which is currently 59.64 percent.“That is one of the highest rates in the state when it comes to reimbursement and you want to capitalize on this,” he said. “Can you get this all done by June 30? The answer is yes. But everyone is going to have to hold hands and move forward to make sure all of the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. I understand that holding hands in this town has not been a pastime, but it’s now time to change that. We have kids, education and real estate values to consider in this process. There are many aspects of a town that makes it what it is and what it is not. The educational system is on the top of the list. If you have a solid education, the families that currently live here are going to stay.”Castagnola said a second option would be to renovate as new Hinsdale and Batcheller, but he recommended against it.Public commentsChairman Hoffnagle then opened the hearing to public comment.Former Selectman Lisa Smith told the board that she agreed with most of Castagnola’s report.“But it’s going to be a hard sell to the public to completely get rid of the schools and build a new building,” Smith said. Selectman Jim Divita, who is a former member of the Board of Education, commended Castagnola and the board.“Holding hands in this town has been missing for a long time,” Divita said. “If we hold hands, we need a firm grip on reality. I think you are on the right course here. You have to have a firm grip on reality if you want to survive.”Resident and parent Melissa Asselin said she supports the idea of building a new school.“We need to have students to move into a new safe area where they can learn at their maximum potential,” Asselin said.Resident Caroline Christensen agreed.“In the seven years I have lived here, 10 families have moved their children out of the school system,” Christensen said. “Those families were vital to our community. This is something that, we as a community, have to think about. Every single person in town wants this to be an amazing place and this has the potential to be one. Educational facilities and education itself is one of the reasons why residents stay in a town.”Weighing the optionsFollowing public comment, Dutton made the motion for the Board of Education to ask the Board of Selectmen to form a building committee in order to renovate as new Batcheller School.“We have heard from the consultant that all three school buildings are in need of repair; however, all of them are functionally solid,” Dutton said. “They all have solid foundations and the walls support renovations. I feel that the consultant’s recommendation is too big a pill for taxpayers to swallow. If we start with something smaller and build on our successes as we go, that will be the least costly to taxpayers.”Board member Hanecak told Dutton that renovating a school building would not make new space for any school district programs.“If we start fresh by building a new school, we can design it as we perceive the future of our programs,” Hanecak said. “I understand why you would want to renovate Batcheller because its geared toward younger children. But I would like to see our children in a better school building.”Christine Royer said she was in full support of building a new school building.“Every child in this district deserves to go to a good school, not just the kids in Batcheller and not just the kids who go to Gilbert,” Royer said. “We have an opportunity to do this right, to build a school and have the families who have moved out to move back in. If you read Connecticut magazine, in terms of cost of living we are number one because it is so damned cheap to live here. If we build a new school, we won’t have families who will keep their children at home because of mold, water or cockroach problems.”James Roberts said that a new building project would be a tough sell to the community due to recent controversies.“We need to build credibility with the town,” Roberts said. “This board is currently suing the town, we have no audit for fiscal 2010-11 and the last audit we had revealed the biggest accounting problems in the history of the state. An educational system goes beyond a building. Of course we would like a new building, but can we afford it?”Hoffnagle said she supported the idea of constructing a new building.“The appropriate thing to do is take advantage of the current state reimbursement rates and get a school building built that would bring back people in this community,” Hoffnagle said. “I think it’s possible to get a new school. It’s an uphill battle, but if the parents decide it’s worth doing it will happen.”The board defeated Dutton’s motion to form a committee to renovate Batcheller School by a vote of seven to one, with Dutton the only member voting in favor.The board then approved Valyo’s motion to ask the Board of Selectmen to form a building committee in order to pursue building a new school building on the grounds of Pearson School, along with closing Hinsdale Elementary School and Batcheller School once construction has been completed.The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

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