SMARTR committee recommends renovations, closing schools

By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Fri., Dec. 6, 2013
An artist rendering of the proposed Cheney-Bennet fifth- and sixth-grade academy. Contributed by Tai Soo Kim Partners. - Contributed Photo

Creating a fifth- and sixth-grade academy, renovating two existing schools to like-new conditions and closing two schools were the main recommendations in the School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited (SMARTR) presentation to a joint meeting with the Manchester Board of Directors and Board of Education on Tuesday, Dec. 3. The SMARTR committee presented a plan with an aggressive timeline that would be slated for completion by 2020. The total cost of the project is around $100 million.

“This is an opportunity for our community to take a step forward in a cost-effective way to address a problem that we haven’t been able to address for almost 20 years now,” said Board of Education Chair Chris Pattacini.

The proposed plan would ensure that all elementary students are in a 21st-century learning environment, achieve racial balance, maintain class size at 17 to 22 students per classroom and optimize state reimbursement opportunities. It calls for the creation of a fifth- and sixth-grade academy by renovating the Cheney Building across from the current Bennet Academy and sharing common areas such as the cafeteria and the gymnasium with the current sixth-grade academy.  The total cost of this project is estimated at $17.4 million, with $10.2 million of it to be covered by a state grant.  A referendum to authorize the project could be put forth this coming spring, with construction beginning in the spring of 2015.  The building could be ready for occupancy in September of 2016.

If all the fifth-graders are moved from the current elementary schools to one central academy, then additional students would need to be moved to Highland Park to ensure full occupancy. 

The next phase would be to renovate Robertson Elementary School to like-new and expand it. “Our demographic studies show that there is growth in the north end of town and that’s where we need to expand our elementary school, so that idea is we build a 530-student school at Robertson,” said Brian Murphy, a SMARTR committee member and one of the presenters.

After Robertson, either Washington or Verplank would be renovated to like-new and expanded to a 530-student school.  The 530 student number is key in maximizing state reimbursement, Murphy said.

The committee then recommends the closing of two schools.  Waddell is one of the schools the committee recommended closing, in addition to either Washington or Verplank. 

“I think it’s unfortunate to close our neighborhood schools,” said Matt Carter, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Waddell.  “It’s a dynamic in our town that’s been good for our children for a long time, and I think to make bigger schools for more kids is not the answer.”

The remaining elementary schools would receive improvements but not to like-new conditions.

The total estimated cost of $100 million for the SMARTR committee's recommended plan to create a kindergarten through fourth-grade model in the elementary schools and build a fifth- and sixth-grade academy would receive an estimated state reimbursement of $44 million, leaving taxpayers responsible for the additional $60 million.

The alternative, the committee said, is to maintain the current K-5 model, keep all elementary schools open and gradually complete like-new renovations to each school. This would cost an estimated $203.5 million. The town would receive an estimated $82.8 million in state reimbursement, leaving the local share at $120 million.

There are three public forums scheduled to discuss this proposal. The first is slated for later this month, the second is in January and the third is in February. After that, there will be three referendums for the public to vote on different phases of the project.

The first referendum is scheduled for this coming spring to vote on the Cheney-Bennet fifth- and sixth-grade academy. The second is slated for November of 2015 for the renovation and expansion of Robertson. The third is scheduled for the following November to vote on the renovation and expansion of either Washington or Verplank.

“The key is that we have to get the Cheney-Bennet passed because otherwise we have nothing and our schools are going to be in even worse shape,” said Michael Crockett, the chair of the SMARTR committee and a member of the Board of Education.

“We have to get on board. We have to look to the future,” said Manchester Mayor Leo Diana. “I think both boards need to get behind this plan. The alternative is very bad and it’s just a lose-lose for Manchester. We can’t be narrow minded and just say we’re not going to close schools. We are going to close schools because we cannot afford to maintain them and the state has set up a structure where we can make this cost-effective.”

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