Plans underway to put Cheney-Bennet construction plan on ballot

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Thu., Jul. 11, 2013
A rendering from architectural firm Tai Soo Kim Partners shows what the fifth/sixth academy might look like, including a walkway spanning over School Street. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
A rendering from architectural firm Tai Soo Kim Partners shows what the fifth/sixth academy might look like, including a walkway spanning over School Street. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

A critical component in the plan to totally revise the Manchester public school district received the blessing from the Board of Directors at a regular meeting held Tuesday, July 9. Directors approved of the possible renovations and additions at Bennet Academy, a sixth-grade public school located on the south side of Main Street, and to a historic brick structure, known as the Cheney Building, adjacent to Bennet on School Street. The renovations would rehabilitate the Cheney building entirely, take down a boiler building, add an addition to the Cheney building, and adjoin Bennet and Cheney with a walkway spanning across School Street.

The architectural firm Tai Soo Kim Partners, which has drafted schematics and renderings of the possible final product, has estimated that the total cost of the renovations would cost slightly north of $17 million, though the town could receive a $10 million reimbursement. The renovations would enable the new Bennet-Cheney campus to house a fifth- and sixth-grade academy, as opposed to Bennet's current sixth-grade-only use.

This is one part of recommendations made by SMARTR, School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited, a committee composed of BOD members, Board of Education members and academic staff that was tasked in early 2012 with developing a long-term strategy to investigating and revising Manchester public schools. SMARTR determined that the town's current school configuration, the neighborhood school model, is not sustainable.

The neighborhood school model envisions an elementary school in each residential neighborhood. Supporters of the model believe that the school acts as an anchoring hub to each community, and reduces the need for bus transportation as the school is within walking distance of students' homes.

Manchester has nine public elementary schools.

SMARTR's conclusions doubt the viability of this model in the long-term, citing population shifts unevenly distributed in town. For example, the development of new housing in the north section of town has caused Robertson Elementary to  push the envelope in terms of student capacity, while attendance in other sections remain static.

The rapid deterioration of many of these nine schools, and the town and BOE's recent actions to finance only the bare minimum of repairs, is another factor to be considered.

As an alternative to the neighborhood school model, SMARTR proposes both kindergarten to fourth-grade models and a fifth/sixth model, which received the endorsement of both the BOD and BOE at past meetings. The combination of Bennet and Cheney into a single fifth/sixth facility is the lynchpin to this plan.

The renovation project will have to be approved by voters, and SMARTR has raced against the clock to include it as a referendum question for next November. Speaking to the board at the July 9 meeting, General Manager Scott Shanley explained that in order for the committee to meet this goal, the board will have to hold a public hearing on the matter at its August meeting, so that directors could take action in August or no later than the first meeting in September.

“I don't think we have a choice,” said Mayor Leo Diana. “I don't think we can sustain nine elementary schools... I think this is a very good plan.”

“Not only does the plan restore a historic building in our community, but it presents the opportunity for students in Manchester – who are just as talented as students in other towns – to have a state-of-the-art facility and be able to compete in the future,” said Director Cheri Pelletier, who is also on the SMARTR committee.

Director John Topping, also a SMARTR member, said that the K-four and fifth/sixth plan may close some schools in order to create bigger, more efficient schools for students. “This is what's best for the community. The facts are, we can't afford the schools we have, as evidenced by the closing of Nathan Hale for lack of maintenance,” he said. “We need to take the bull by the horns and get this through.”

Going forward, Shanley will prepare a presentation on the project for the BOD August meeting, and a public hearing will be held. Should the BOD approve to include the project on ballots and if voters approve it at the November referendum, the fifth/sixth academy campus is expected to be complete for 2016-2017.

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