Report Recommends $40 Million Investment In Manchester Schools

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Text by Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant; video by Angelica Spanos, Fox CT

MANCHESTER — A special panel that has been studying the school system’s needs and its chronic problems will recommend an approximately $40 million local investment in school construction over the next several years and the closing of up to two elementary schools, according to a draft of the committee’s recommendations.

The town boards of directors and education will see a presentation from the School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited at a joint meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Lincoln Center.

SMARTR is supporting the combination of Bennet Academy and the vacant Cheney Building to create a new fifth- and sixth-grade academy.

Also, Robertson Elementary School, the fastest growing school, should be renovated to “like new” condition and expanded to accommodate 530 students, the committee recommended.

Either Verplanck or Washington elementary school also should be renovated and expanded to house a similar enrollment, the panel said.

The cost would be $90 million to $100 million, with the local share at about $40 million after state reimbursement, according to the SMARTR draft resolution.

In comparison, renovating each of the nine existing elementary schools to “like new” condition would cost local taxpayers about $75 million because the state’s reimbursement formula discourages renovation of smaller schools on existing footprints, the panel found.

Bowers Elementary School currently has the largest enrollment at 427 students. In researching new and “like new” school construction, SMARTR found that a school serving 530 students would maintain current classroom sizes of 17 to 22 students while also maximizing state reimbursement.

The recommendations are meant to tackle several longstanding problems, including an aging infrastructure, especially in the elementary school buildings. Other problems include the need to meet state mandates on racial balancing at each school and parity throughout the district, so that all students are in modern facilities with equal access to technology.

The plan hinges on voters’ approval, likely at a spring referendum, of the proposed new fifth- and sixth-grade academy.

The project would cost local taxpayers $6 million to $7 million, compared with up to $14 million for building a new school.

The transfer of 500 fifth-graders and the proposed expansion of two elementary schools would allow the school system to close one or two elementary schools, reducing long-term maintenance and operational costs and capital investment, SMARTR found.

The SMARTR recommendations come after a consultant’s report to the school board last month. The report from Milone & MacBroom focused on redistricting and racial balance under several scenarios with a kindergarten to fourth-grade elementary system.

Under one option, Robertson and Washington elementary schools would be expanded to accommodate 530 students each, and Verplanck and Waddell schools would close.

A second option called for the expansion of Robertson and Verplanck schools to 530 students each and closing Washington and Waddell Schools. A final option would be to expand Robertson School, alone, to 530 students and close Waddell School.

The consultant found that the reconfigured schools maintained racial balance with the expansion of school neighborhood boundaries.

The SMARTR committee also recommends continuing exploration of converting the now-vacant Nathan Hale School into a magnet school. The local cost for sending students to out-of-district magnet, charter and private schools is now about $2 million each year.

There will be no public comment session at Tuesday’s meeting, but town leaders say three public forums on the recommendations are to be held this month and in January and February.

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