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Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Smaller District, Greater Rewards

Smaller School Districts 

PHOTO © GREGG SHUPE 2013|SHUPESTUDIOS.COM, COURTESY OF MOSER PILON NELSON ARCHITECTS

No school redistricting project moves forward without controversy, particularly when it involves reducing the school district’s holdings in facilities and making improvements to those that remain. A certain percentage of residents facing a higher annual tax bill, families whose children attend schools slated to close, teachers’ unions and various others affected will all find something to vigorously oppose in whatever plan eventually goes in front of voters. Pity the administrators who have to weigh all the costs and make all the determinations that they know will make some of their constituents unhappy.

The costs of doing nothing about inefficiently configured and marginally operational buildings, though, can’t be overstated. A nearby community, Manchester, Conn. — 58,000 population, located east of Hartford — has struggled for years with aging school facilities in dire need of maintenance and repairs. Worse yet, many elementary schools (currently nine of the city’s 14 public schools) can’t always accommodate the neighborhood school-age population, leading to overcrowding that in some schools has required the use of unsightly and uncomfortable portable classrooms.

The board of education’s first attempt to deal with this district-wide problem led to the 2011-12 renovation of and addition to Highland Park Elementary School (a project for which my firm served as architect) and the 2012 closing of Nathan Hale Elementary School. Both during the renovation and upon its successful completion, Highland Park became a sort of “test model” (as one school board member called it) for future renovations, as it was one of
the first buildings in Connecticut to meet the state’s new high-performance building standards, which it had to do in order for the city to receive state reimbursement. The next steps in a much larger plan will go before voters in separate referendums, beginning later this year.

With its consolidation and renovation of elementary schools, and a reorganization that will require mass movement of students within the district, Manchester’s $120-million plan is controversial to say the least — and shows how national studies of student achievement, state grant programs for capital projects, and state and federal requirements for new and renovated facilities can help determine what happens to schools on a local level.

The SMARTR guys in the room

Trawl the comments sections of area news outlets, and you’ll see that, as the plan has taken shape, administrators have repeatedly been accused of caring more about money than about the kids affected by the plan. In fact, the 13-member committee (made up of members of the boards of education and directors, and members of the general public) charged with devising a comprehensive plan for the district — SMARTR, or the School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited — appears, after two years of study, to have exercised due diligence. Assuming the referendum passes, elementary class sizes will drop (in keeping with studies that suggest that small class sizes are beneficial in the early grades), retained facilities will receive massive upgrades, and local taxpayers will see a very substantial savings as a result of the committee’s efforts to maximize state department of education reimbursement formulas.

To understand the committee’s proposed solution, it helps to know more about Manchester’s dilemma. The city currently has a surplus of elementary school square footage, but given the collective age of its schools, that space is inefficiently laid out. Beyond overcrowding of some classrooms (the Highland Park addition allowed for the removal of three portable classrooms, which also aids in building efficiency, operation and supervision), there is inadequate space for non-classroom functions such as offices for the school psychologist, school nurse or speech therapist; an adequately sized media center and gymnasium; state-of-the-art science classrooms or cafeterias; administrative and storage spaces; and appropriate space for state-mandated in-school suspension. Highland Park’s additions included a new media center, classrooms, student support areas and elevators, in addition to site improvements for traffic flow and parking, and provision of new play areas.

The state department of education classifies Manchester in district reference group (DRG) G, putting it in the lowest one-fifth of Connecticut schools in terms of socio-economic status and other factors. The city’s elementary school enrollment is equal to or less than the mean enrollment in elementary schools in Connecticut and in DRG G, but its middle school enrollment far exceeds the mean enrollment for middle schools in both. Manchester’s somewhat quirky schools configuration means that public school students have but one public middle school option — the sixth-grade-only Bennet Academy, followed by seventh- and eighth-grade Illing Middle School. While half of the schools in the state are configured as K-5, 6-8 and 9-12, and K-8 is the next-most-common configuration, Manchester lacks the larger facilities to make either of these a reality.

Manchester does, however, have a wild card. Across School Street from Bennet Academy sit two historic structures that contribute to the Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District — a boiler plant built to heat the Bennet complex, and the vacant 27,486-square-foot Cheney Building (formerly a school). SMARTR’s plan, which was first unveiled to the Manchester School Board last Dec. 3, would renovate these structurally sound buildings and connect them via an enclosed overpass to Bennet. Public sentiment on this is more uniform: By an overwhelming margin, Manchester residents want to see these buildings reused.

The New Manchester Schools

The catch, for city residents, is how Bennet-Cheney would be populated. SMARTR’s proposal is predicated on the notion that fifth-graders from the nine current elementary schools would shift to the new joint fifth/sixth-grade academy (to be completed by the summer of 2016), while the nine K-5 schools would (by 2020) become seven K-4 schools. Four existing elementary schools would undergo renovations budgeted at around $4.5 million apiece, while two would be completely gutted, expanded and renovated “like new” during the 2016-2020 time frame.

Highland Park’s “like new” renovation — including full replacement of antiquated MEP systems, new state-of-the-art technology systems, meeting of all accessibility standards, building envelope upgrades and abatement of all hazardous materials — cost a little more than $13 million, with the state picking up about 58 percent of the total. Emblematic of the new plan’s cost sensitivity is the committee’s recommendation to expand the two renovated schools to house about 530 students each, thereby raising the state’s commitment up to 65.71 percent, since the state’s formula for grant reimbursement favors larger schools.

It’s easy to sympathize with the concerns of residents raised on a neighborhood school concept. Unfortunately, administrators and committee members who have studied the situation have concluded that “The viability and sustainability of the current neighborhood school concept is questionable,” according to the committee’s first report to the city in September 2012. That followed a report by the city’s facilities managers that put the price tag on repairs to school district properties at $23 million. That figure did not include the cost of continued operation of nine aging elementary schools (Richard Kisiel, the interim superintendent of schools, estimated that the closing of Nathan Hale saved the city $700,000 annually in operational costs).

SMARTR’s plan can’t magically revive the neighborhood school concept, but it at least addresses the other relevant issues. In terms of facilities, the Bennet-Cheney plan makes use of three historic buildings and by taking the city’s fifth-graders creates enormous flexibility district-wide, which the city will need to address its rising population (the city’s 12.8 percent growth over the past two decades dwarfs the state’s 3.3 percent increase during that time), as well as respond to projected shifts in enrollment. The district has identified the K-4/5-6 split as a better educational model for both elementary and middle school kids, and hopes are high that keeping class sizes small — and bringing local schools into the 21st century — can boost student achievement. And in terms of cost, removal of two schools from the city’s stock of buildings, and renovations to new state standards (comparable to LEED Silver), will have a huge impact on ongoing operational expenditures.

Nathan Hale: No Regrets

WHILE IT HAS GONE LARGELY UNNOTICED amid the redistricting controversy, SMARTR’s plan for the Manchester, Conn., schools includes a line item of $5 million for potential reuse of whichever two elementary schools are closed. While it is too early to know what that reuse might entail, it is worth noting that Nathan Hale Elementary, which the city closed prior to the 2012-13 school year, remains utilized to a small degree while awaiting a possible second act.

Currently, Manchester uses its cafeteria and gym for recreational programs. The school district, which began the 2012-13 covering annual costs of $154,000 for utilities and custodial care, voted in February 2013 to turn the building over to the city, which agreed to take responsibility for its upkeep. Interim School Superintendent Richard Kisiel told local reporters last year that he had spoken to state officials about procuring funding for a possible magnet school on the site. The building’s aged building envelope and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems — the primary reason for its 2012 closing — will require extensive renovations no matter who ultimately inhabits it.

— J.G.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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