Democrats respond on Mill Hill renovation

Mill Hill Elementary School is scheduled to undergo a renovation, in part to remove 5 portable classroom trailers and add additional classroom space. The cost differential between building capacity for 504 students versus 441 students is approximately $900,000. Yet the Republican Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 against adding the 63 additional seats, and the Board of Finance, also by a 1 vote margin, rejected an amendment with bipartisan support to restore the funding for a 504 school.

These votes were shortsighted and at odds with the Town and Board of Education’s process over the last 15 years to approach school renovation and construction in a systematic, deliberate and fiscally responsible manner. Mill Hill was the last big piece of that 15-year plan to rid our schools of portables and provide the necessary educational space to run our educational programs.

Throughout the process, Town officials have repeatedly agreed that, when practicable and fiscally responsible, we should renovate elementary schools to accommodate 504 students, providing flexibility as populations grow and shift in town and allowing for sensible redistricting if necessary. As recently as 2015, Selectman Edward Bateson and RTM Member Michael Hurley issued a press release in support of a 504-capacity renovation at Mill Hill. Yet Selectman Bateson became the swing vote opposing the 504 plan, and Mr. Hurley, for reasons unclear, now opposes a 504 Mill Hill despite overwhelming support from the Mill Hill community in favor of 504.

Perhaps the most confusing issue surrounding BOS and BOF Republican votes against the 504-capacity school is that there seems to be agreement that we need more space. First, the BOE has provided information that its ECC program’s enrollment is booming and that it is in need of space. We are obligated by law to educate these children. Second, the current “choke point” when it comes to elementary school space centers around three schools — Mill Hill, Sherman and Riverfield. These schools’ population boundaries border each other, allowing for movement under any future redistricting plan.

Undoubtedly, expanding Mill Hill to 504 would have helped Sherman’s overcrowding issues, and in fact Sherman parents understood this because the emails we received from them overwhelmingly supported a 504 Mill Hill. However, the Republican members of the Board of Finance voting against the 504 plan and instead discussed spending tax dollars to look at adding space at Sherman to address its overcapacity issues. This reasoning flies in the face of the fact that all town bodies are well aware of the difficulties with renovating and expanding Sherman because of its location in a flood zone.

The Town has embarked on improving Sherman in phases to get around the flood zone issues, with two phases completed and Phase 3 about to begin. It appears that the Board of Finance members who opposed spending $900,000 to add seats at Mill Hill instead want to — at the last minute — change plans that have been in place for years and spend additional money to further expand Sherman school, a difficult and likely expensive proposition because of the flood zone issues.

One Board of Finance member stated he also wants to look at renovating Oldfield School — this despite the fact that he is well aware that this was looked at many years ago and found to be extremely expensive to renovate or replace, again because of its location in a flood zone. In 2008, the estimated cost to renovate Oldfield to make it a 315 capacity school was $17-19 million. The estimated cost to tear the building down was $21-23 million, and these costs do not include moving the senior center.

Renovating two schools in a flood zone makes no financial sense compared to the option of spending an extra $900,000 to expand Mill Hill. We have very little doubt that these votes were short-sighted, do not provide the space that the BOE needs for the future, were not in the best interest of our children, have created uncertainty moving forward and will — in the long run — cost the Fairfield taxpayer more money.

John Mitola, Sheila Marmion, Elizabeth Zezima

Fairfield Board of Finance