Following are excerpts from an article by Hugh Pearson, a partner with Wethersfield, Conn.-based Moser Pilon Nelson Architects.
No school redistricting project moves forward without controversy, particularly when it involves reducing the school district’s holdings in facilities and making improvements to those that remain. A certain percentage of residents facing a higher annual tax bill, families whose children attend schools slated to close, teachers’ unions and various others affected will all find something to vigorously oppose in whatever plan eventually goes in front of voters.
The costs of doing nothing about inefficiently configured and marginally operational buildings, though, can’t be overstated. Manchester, Conn. – 58,000 population, located east of Hartford – has struggled for years with aging school facilities in dire need of maintenance and repairs. Worse yet, many elementary schools (currently nine of the city’s 14 public schools) can’t always accommodate the neighborhood school-age population, leading to overcrowding that in some schools has required the use of unsightly and uncomfortable portable classrooms.
With its consolidation and renovation of elementary schools, and a reorganization that will require mass movement of students within the district, Manchester’s $120 million plan is controversial to say the least — and shows how national studies of student achievement, state grant programs for capital projects, and state and federal requirements for new and renovated facilities can help determine what happens to schools on a local level.
The state department of education classifies Manchester in district reference group (DRG) G, putting it in the lowest one-fifth of Connecticut schools in terms of socio-economic status and other factors. The city’s elementary school enrollment is equal to or less than the mean enrollment in elementary schools in Connecticut and in DRG G, but its middle school enrollment far exceeds the mean enrollment for middle schools in both. Manchester’s somewhat quirky schools configuration means that public school students have but one public middle school option.
Manchester does, however, have a wild card. Across School Street from Bennet Academy sit two historic structures that contribute to the Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District — a boiler plant built to heat the Bennet complex, and the vacant 27,486sf Cheney Building (formerly a school).
SMARTR’s plan, which was first unveiled to the Manchester School Board last Dec. 3, would renovate these structurally sound buildings and connect them via an enclosed overpass to Bennet. Public sentiment on this is more uniform: By an overwhelming margin, Manchester residents want to see these buildings reused.
The catch, for city residents, is how Bennet-Cheney would be populated. SMARTR’s proposal is predicated on the notion that fifth-graders from the nine current elementary schools would shift to the new joint fifth/sixth-grade academy (to be completed by the summer of 2016), while the nine K-5 schools would (by 2020) become seven K-4 schools. Four existing elementary schools would undergo renovations budgeted at around $4.5 million apiece, while two would be completely gutted, expanded and renovated “like new” during the 2016-2020 time frame.
Highland Park’s “like new” renovation — including full replacement of antiquated MEP systems, new state-of-the-art technology systems, meeting of all accessibility standards, building envelope upgrades and abatement of all hazardous materials — cost a little more than $13 million, with the state picking up about 58% of the total. Emblematic of the new plan’s cost sensitivity is the committee’s recommendation to expand the two renovated schools to house about 530 students each, thereby raising the state’s commitment up to 65.71%, since the state’s formula for grant reimbursement favors larger schools.
It’s easy to sympathize with the concerns of residents raised on a neighborhood school concept.
SMARTR’s plan can’t magically revive the neighborhood school concept, but it at least addresses the other relevant issues. In terms of facilities, the Bennet-Cheney plan makes use of three historic buildings and by taking the city’s fifth-graders creates enormous flexibility district-wide, which the city will need to address its rising population (the city’s 12.8 percent growth over the past two decades dwarfs the state’s 3.3% increase during that time), as well as respond to projected shifts in enrollment. The district has identified the K-4/5-6 split as a better educational model for both elementary and middle school kids, and hopes are high that keeping class sizes small — and bringing local schools into the 21st century — can boost student achievement. And in terms of cost, removal of two schools from the city’s stock of buildings, and renovations to new state standards (comparable to LEED Silver), will have a huge impact on ongoing operational expenditures.