Natchaug roof among public priorities at Windham joint meeting

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Wed., Jan. 9, 2013
Windham resident Mary Gallucci speaks during the public comment portion of the meeting. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Windham resident Mary Gallucci speaks during the public comment portion of the meeting. Photos by Melanie Savage.

The Windham Town Council, Board of Education and Board of Finance hoped to get a solid, collaborative start to the budget-making season by inviting state legislators to a special meeting at the Windham Town Hall on Jan. 5. The hope was to identify specific areas of financial want/need for the area prior to the beginning of the legislative session on Jan. 9.

One of the major focuses of residents during a public comment portion of the meeting was the roof of the Natchaug School, which has been an issue for Windham for more than a year. In November of 2011, a leaky roof forced the evacuation of the school. Over the summer, the Windham Board of Education voted to shift the elementary-aged students from Natchaug to Windham Middle School, where they would share space with the older students. The school board was unable to convince the Board of Finance, however, to approve the estimated $1.3 million cost of replacing the roof, citing the structural integrity of the remainder of the 94-year-old building as an unanswered question. Also in question was the district’s future need for the building, as the new magnet school absorbs students and makes use of the Natchaug building unnecessary.

“I want to urge you to look seriously at the Natchaug situation,” said Jerry Phillips, an associate professor at UConn and a Windham resident. Phillips said that the middle school space was inadequate for housing so many students. “The situation at the middle school is unsustainable,” he said.

A Windham Center resident agreed. “There’s definitely a use for that school over the next 10 years,” said David Fenn. He felt the $1.3 million estimate for the new roof was high. “You can get a new roof for $280,000. What is the better economic alternative?” he asked, pointing out that a new school building or portable classrooms would cost much more. “Do the right thing on this. Don’t waste time anymore,” said Fenn.

Resident Jean deSmet urged an examination of PILOT legislation, pointing out that a town such as Windham, with a high percentage of PILOT-eligible buildings, should receive reimbursement for some of the lost property tax revenue. DeSmet urged the elimination of corporate tax breaks that shift the tax burden onto the middle class. And she urged the reuse of structures such as the Natchaug School rather than the building of new structures. “Natchaug is a quality building,” said deSmet. “Don’t knock down quality buildings to build junk.”

Council member Mark Doyle agreed that action needed to be taken regarding Natchaug. “If we wait for the 10-year plan, that building is going to fall in on itself,” he said.

Among the “wish list” of financial and legislative priorities brought up at the meeting were sidewalks for Main Street, a senior center and an overhauling of the Educational Cost Sharing formula so that towns like Windham are more adequately funded.

State Sen. Donald E. Williams, Jr. (D-Brooklyn), who attended the meeting with state Rep. Susan Johnson (D-Willimantic) and state Rep. Linda Orange (D-Colchester), reminded those assembled that the state faced a $1.3 billion dollar shortfall necessitating approximately $700 million in cuts. Williams suggested that town administrators think carefully about their requests, and that they focus on projects with ongoing economic development potential.

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