The Fairfield Representative Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved $2.2 million in bonding for core facility upgrades to Sherman School in a 36-to-2 vote Monday night, but not before airing criticisms of the original estimate for the project.

Majority Leader James Millington, R-9, said when the building committee first came to the RTM for seed money for the work, it had a $1.9 million price tag. "We gave the seed money and found out it was really a $4.4 million project."

He questioned how the RTM could trust such cost projections in the future. "We need to know who got these numbers," he said.

Al Kelly, chairman of the Town Facilities Commission, said that the original $1.9 million price was not determined by a professional estimate, but rather by Tom Cullen, the director of facilities for the school district. When school officials later got the $4.4 million overall figure for the work they'd planned to do, it was scaled back to $2.2 million. Because the school is in a flood plain, FEMA regulations will not allow the work to cost more than half of the building's market value.

"Another thing I've heard is that this was capped due to FEMA regulations," Millington said. "Fortunately, there was a reassessment and the value went up and now we're at $2.2 million."

Kelly said he understands the frustration on the part of RTM members and said he has had discussions with members of the school board that in future, they need to use professional estimators to come up with projected costs before any money is sought from the town.

The project will add a second serving line to Sherman's cafeteria, improve air circulation and quality in the school, knock down a brick wall to give school staff a better view of visitors entering the building, and add space for a nurse's suite, a conference room and administrative offices.

In other words, said Board of Education Vice Chairman Pam Iacono, allow the students at Sherman to "eat, breathe and go to school in a safe location."

Kathryn Braun, R-8, attempted to whittle the project cost down by cutting out the $211,000 for cafeteria work. Braun said she didn't consider a second lunch line to be a matter of health or safety, a statement parents in the audience, as well as fellow RTM members, took issue with.

"I'm as cheap as the next person," said Edward Bateson, R-3, but he could not support the cut. He said there is also a social aspect to being able to sit down and talk with fellow students during lunch.

Parent Laurie Quick said the children need to eat lunch and current conditions make that nearly impossible because much of students' 20-minute lunch period is spent waiting in the hot lunch line.

Braun's amendment failed when she was the only one to vote in favor.

Faith Dillon, R-9, who along with Arthur Hug, R-4, voted against the overall $2.2 million, said she knew the request would pass, and she was happy that it would, but she had a problem with the town not seeking state reimbursement for the project. "We are owed $400,000 from the state for this project," she said. "We're basically going to be ripped off."

Kelly said that were the town to go for state reimbursement, the state would require additional work to the school, which would drive up the cost putting it over the FEMA limit. Then, he said, the town would have to cut out some of the things now planned. "We wouldn't be able to do the important things we have listed on this sheet," he said. "It's really the cap that's guiding us here."

The only way around the cap, First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said, would be to tear down the school and build a completely new one at a higher elevation or build a wall around the school. Building a wall was explored for Oldfield School eight or nine years ago and the cost at that time was $4 million, he said. "It's very expensive and it doesn't seem cost effective."

"We really have a tight, small project," said Eileen Roxbee, Sherman's principal. "This is just bare bones. It's safety, it's air quality and it's about getting people out of closets."