Too Soon, Too Much?

Tecton Architects slide

The proposal to build a new Weston Middle School may have hit a speed bump this afternoon: a call for a re-think by First Selectwoman Samantha Nestor.

On Monday evening May 20, the Board of Education voted to ask the Selectmen to authorize a state construction grant application by the June 30 deadline and to ask the boards of Finance and Selectmen to hold a referendum in November.

The referendum question would seek voter approval on bonding for up to almost $112 million to build the new school, noting that reimbursements from the state would reduce that figure, down to around $88 million if the town’s maximum eligibility is awarded.

Discussion and decision by the finance board and Selectmen have not yet taken place, and Ms. Nestor is calling for a pause.

“The process has been rushed,” she said. “A lot of good ideas and reasonable budgets were presented a couple of years ago, and I don’t think they were fully taken into account.”

A disconnect?

Ms. Nestor refers to options and estimates formulated after two years of study (partly interrupted by the pandemic) by the Facility Optimization Committee (FOC), which presented findings to a tri-board meeting (Selectmen, Finance, and Education) in July of 2022.

“Some of those ideas would have addressed other issues that the town has,” said Ms. Nestor, specifically mentioning the Town Hall Annex, the Jarvis building that houses Parks and Recreation, and public access to the swimming pool at the middle school.

“It’s true that none of those plans have been executed yet, but here we are in 2024 looking at a proposal that only solves problems at the middle school and not much else, and does it for a lot more money than anyone ever imagined.”

The First Selectwoman said she “cannot support putting forth a grant application for a new middle school for $112 million by June 30.”

“We absolutely do need a new or renovated middle school,” she said. “But we have to tighten the parameters, go in with a reasonable budget in mind, and get a great school built.”

In a statement, Board of Finance chair Michael Imber said, “I concur with First Selectwoman Nestor’s recommendation to take a measured and thoughtful approach in considering a new middle school. Getting the analytics right is critical and supersedes the need to meet a June 30 deadline.”

Ms. Nestor said she wants to examine other recent school construction projects in the region, identify best practices, and explore whether alternative funding sources are available from the state and federal governments.

“I want to understand the entire scope of what we need to fund throughout the school campus and model debt capacity with those figures,” said Ms. Nestor. “And I’m going to roll up my sleeves, work with the Board of Ed, work with the superintendent, work with the Board of Finance, work with my fellow Selectmen, and work with the community to come up with a better plan fast.”


Weston Today photo

In their May 20 meeting, the Board of Education waived normal limits on time devoted to public comment. 18 residents spoke. Some were enthusiastically in favor, some adamantly opposed. Most had questions, some of which may have been answered in the discussion that followed between board members and Tecton Architects.

For many in the audience and on the board, there were expressions of unease with how suddenly the proposal emerged and how quickly it was moving, especially considering the price tag.

Several also wondered about the apparent disconnect with the earlier work of the Facility Optimization Committee.

Topping the list of items submitted by the FOC to the boards “for further review, analysis, refinement and consideration” were options labeled 2 and 2+, the latter often called “2 Prime.”

About the only difference between those two options was whether the middle school would be renovated or “renovated as new.” Put simply, renovation involves fixing everything inside and out that is old, worn out, or broken. Generally, renovation as new means doing all that for about half of the structure but building something new in the other half.

Renovating as new costs more, but you get more, and can actually pay less (locally). That’s because state reimbursements for renovating as new are twice the rate offered for straight renovation.

Estimates for local costs of Option 2 came to $99.8 million. Option 2 Prime — renovating as new — came in slightly less: $97.6 million. Those numbers would almost certainly be higher in today’s dollars for construction, but they addressed more than the middle school.

The two options had this scope of work in common:

  • Renovating WMS, or renovating as new.
  • Converting Hurlbutt Elementary into office space for Town and school district functions currently at Jarvis and in the Annex, and expanding the senior center.
  • Demolishing the Annex and school district central office buildings to make way for construction of a new Pre-K to first grade elementary school.
  • Demolishing or repurposing Hurlbutt’s North House and the bus depot.

Thus the disconnect. Or at least what looks like one. The more relevant question may be what it should cost in 2024 (like the answer or not) to build a new school or renovate one as new, based on actual projects underway in Connecticut.

More information and several documents about the proposed school project have been posted on the school district website.

Related Story:

May 17, 2024:  On the Table: Brand New Middle School

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