Passionate residents urge action on Natchaug School

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Mon., Jan. 21, 2013
Windham Superintendent of Schools Ana Ortiz translates for resident James Flores during an impassioned public comment session during a recent Board of Finance meeting. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Windham Superintendent of Schools Ana Ortiz translates for resident James Flores during an impassioned public comment session during a recent Board of Finance meeting. Photos by Melanie Savage.

At one point during the early portion of the Windham Board of Finance meeting on Jan. 16, the standing-room-only crowd in the Town Hall auditorium appeared to slightly exceed the posted capacity of 70 people. The subject of interest for the general public was an item that wasn’t even on the agenda for the evening - replacement of the roof on the Natchaug School building.

Natchaug student Jose Lopez read a statement that was carried by several children, printed in large block letters on white copy paper. “We want our school back,” read Lopez. “We want to eat lunch in the cafeteria, not at our desks. We want Natchaug School back.”

The roof on Natchaug School 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 to approve the estimated $1.3 million cost of replacing the roof (80 percent of which would be reimbursed by the state), 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.

But impassioned residents, including a number of children, spoke of crowded conditions at the middle school and a love for the original school “home.” On display at the front of the room were a number of drawings in crayon and pencil, drawn by Natchaug students, featuring the historic building.

Willimantic resident Jerry Phillips pointed out that the while the “Windham Educational Budget is something like $43 million per annum, the town share of the Natchaug roof replacement is a mere $280, 000.” Every other viable option would end up costing the taxpayers more money, said Phillips. “The relocation of Natchaug to the middle school was an emergency measure, but it can only be a short term policy,” he continued. Phillips pointed to progress that the school had made as a result of a School Improvement Grant, the “great leadership” of Principal Jeff Wihbey and “the dedicated efforts of the Natchaug teaching staff.” But conditions at the middle school, which keep students cooped up all day in one spot, threatened “a loss of momentum, and a possible regression” for Natchaug students, said Phillips.

Resident Cindy Lew Allen said that her grandson, a Natchaug student, has special needs. “He has been doing well, but the situation has stressed him,” she said.

Resident James Flores joined many others in urging immediate action regarding the issue. He said that residents deserved the opportunity to vote. “It’s wrong to leave this hanging,” said Flores.

“This is all about families in our community,” said business owner Tom DeVivo. “Please support this project and let’s get started.”

“I believe the roof needs to be fixed,” said Windham Mayor Ernie Eldrige.

Windham Board of Education member Nancy Tinker, speaking as a taxpayer, said, “The goal should be to get the roof done so that the kids can be back in the school in September.”

But there were some, including Board of Finance member Thomas White, who felt that voting on the roof as a separate issue was the wrong approach. He cited other repairs needed by the aging building, and said that taxpayers should be voting on a package, not a single issue. “Fix the school properly, don’t band-aid it,” said White. “I am tired of band-aiding buildings.”

Parents spoke of children who cried every morning, who no longer wanted to go to school - children who were forced to stay at their desks all day, for lunch and during recess.

Dennis O’Brien said that he was disappointed to see that the item was not on the board’s agenda. He urged that it be passed forward to referendum. “I, for one, would vote yes, fix the roof,” said O’Brien.

The Board of Finance, citing a change in the town-funded portion of the potential roof replacement, voted to send the issue back to the Town Council. A number of “ineligible costs” had been identified, which would increase the town’s portion of the roof replacement to nearly $316,000, from the original $271,000. The council will need to re-approve the revised number, which would then potentially be sent to town meeting and/or referendum.

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