Not an ‘easy A’: Seed money, building committee approved for Mill Hill
FAIRFIELD — A building committee and $1.5 million in seed money for renovations and expansion at Mill Hill School recieved approval Wednesday from the Board of Selectmen, but it was by no means an “easy A.”
Selectman Chris Tymniak broke with First Selectman Mike Tetreau and Selectman Kevin Kiley and voted against appropriating the seed money for the project, which is estimated to cost as much as $25 million.
“My concern is overbuilding, especially at this school, there’s no need right now for a 504 school,” Tymniak said. The education specifications approved last week by the Board of Education call for a school with a capacity of 504 students, just was done at Riverfield and is being done at Holland Hill.
Milone & MacBroom, the school board’s consultant on enrollment projections, has recommended several options to deal with both overcrowding at the district’s schools, as well as the racial imbalance at McKinley School. Those recommendations include redistricting but premised on the fact that Mill Hill is made a 504 school.
The Board of Education has taken no vote on redistricting, which Chairman Phil Dwyer said is a process that can take several years.
“Financially how many millions are we going to spend to satisfy racial imbalance by overbuilding,” Tymniak said.
Supt. of Schools Toni Jones said Mill Hill can be looked at in isolation, especially when there is a school in the district — Sherman — that can’t be expanded due to FEMA regulations. “You have to look at the whole district, and how we can maximize space,” Jones said.
And school board member Jessica Gerber reminded the selectmen that they weren’t voting on construction funding yet, while Dwyer said the ed specs can be changed if town boards decide the price tag is too high.
Another option, Dwyer said, would be to have bids show the cost for the project with the cost of just two new classrooms, and with five new classrooms.
But Tymniak said if the option exists for the school to take another look at a 21-classroom school, and not the 24-classroom 504 school, “it’s not being built (based) upon population.”
If it was ultimately a 21 classroom school, Dwyer said, “It would not be built as the Board of Ed believes it should but, but it would not be the first time other town boards decided otherwise. The Board of Ed would want to stay at 504, but if push came to shove and the only way the town felt they could afford,” the board would adjust. However, he said, the school board believes that Mill Hill needs to be a 504 school.
Tymniak’s reluctance is approving a 504 school appears to signal a change in the stance of Republicans. In a 2015 redistricting message from the Republican leadership on the RTM, Edward Bateson and Michael Herley expressed concerns about talk of not making Mill Hill or Holland Hill 504 schools.
According to the release, Bateson “calls on the BOE to reinstate a renovated capacity level of 504 students at both Holland Hill and Mill Hill” as had been done at other schools. “Don’t the good people of Holland Hill and Mill Hill deserve the same?” Bateson asked. “I think so and believe it is best if we go back to the originally recommended student capacity plan and put local neighborhoods first.” Herley, the current RTM deputy minority leader, said at the time he was concerned with the school board’s “new tempered approach to investing in our local elementary school renovation projects and encourages the board to revert to the student capacity levels outlined in hits original long-term facilities plan.”
“The (enrollment) numbers I have in front of me don’t indicate a 504 is necessary,” Tymniak said. “I’m taking a leap of faith, that I don’t feel comfortable taking, that the board will come up with a redistricting plan they can agree on.”
The selectmen asked Dwyer to arrange to have Milone & MacBroom make a presentation on its enrollment projects to their board. The consultants made a similar presentation at a recent school board meeting, which is available for viewing on demand from FairTV.
“For me, it boils down to a couple of things, the first is flexibility,” Kiley said. “I’m seeing this project as giving us the flexibility to look at it again in six or 12 months to determine if a 504 is correct or not. It also gives us the flexibility to help solve the overcrowding problem across our town. We need to address it and solve it.”
Although Tymniak did not vote in favor of the seed money, he did vote to apply for state reimbursement for the project and to establish the building committee. He said seeing as the seed money passed, it was foolish not to apply for state reimbursement.