A Bit of History…
The story of the space crunch in Weston schools goes back at least 12 years, before the majority of students in the Weston schools were born and probably before their parents even thought of moving to Weston, Connecticut. The Board of Education would like to first present some history of the issue; our next commentary will discuss in more detail our decision to recommend building a 3-5 intermediate elementary school, a decision not arrived at lightly.
Connecticut State statute specifically states that it is the duty and responsibility of the board of education to determine “the number, age, and qualifications of pupils to be admitted to each school.” In 1998, the Weston Board of Education, a board well experienced in dealing with facilities issues, weighed many alternatives before deciding to request that the Town build a 3-5 intermediate elementary school as the best solution to the school space problem. This grade configuration was recommended to the Board of Education by one educational leader (former superintendent K. David Trigaux), and subsequently reiterated and supported by two later superintendents. The 3-5 project has been endorsed by three very different Weston Boards of Education (in 1998, 2000, and the current board).
The need for additional space to accommodate the current growth of Weston’s student population dates back at least to 1989-1990. That was when Weston saw the beginning of the exploding population growth. A Board of Education committee, consisting of administration, parents, town personnel, and community members, was formed to look at the options for increasing space at Hurlbutt.
The Weston schools were quite different back then. In 1989-1990, there were 5 sections of kindergarten, today we have “Kinderland” with 12 modular classrooms. In 1989-1990 Hurlbutt housed 537 students in 5 grades, today it (along with Kinderland) houses 1006 students in grades K-4; the Middle School (grades 5-8) had 422 students in 4 grades, today’s enrollment is 779. The total district enrollment in 1989-1990 was 1409, today it is 2369, almost a thousand students larger.
In 1992, four additional classrooms were added to the North House at Hurlbutt, although eight had been recommended. Enrollment growth continued, and 2 years later the 4th grade moved to the Middle School to alleviate overcrowding at Hurlbutt. (Enrollment at Hurlbutt had reached 687.)
In 1995, the district-wide enrollment was 1682, and the Board of Education informed the Town that in 5 years (2000), the district would be educating an additional 500 students (the projection was for 2160 students, but 2397 actually came to class in the fall of 2000). In 1996, the cluster classrooms at the 4-5 wing of the Middle School were remodeled to increase their capacity.
In 1996-1997, the Jean I. McNeill core facility at Hurlbutt was constructed. This added 12 classrooms and badly needed non-classroom space, including the library media center, new art room, nurses office, main office and Pupil Services spaces. We also gained additional instructional time during the school day as a result of connecting the three previously separate buildings. This was the first of the three-phases of the 1995 long-term facilities plan. As part of that plan, in 1998 the Middle School reclaimed 5 classrooms when the District Central Administration Office moved to its own building.
In 1997-1998, school enrollment had surpassed even the most aggressive projections. The enrollment at Hurlbutt (K-3) was 810; at the Middle School it was 757. In early 1998, the Board of Education’s Long Range Planning subcommittee began discussing the next phase of construction, which had been outlined in the 1995 long-range plan. This plan called for building a grade 4-5 addition to the Middle School in 1999 and then a grade 6-8 addition in 2001. The Board of Education subcommittee considered the many alternatives. These included adding on to the current buildings to create mega schools, placing portables at all three schools, establishing an alterative elementary school, creating a house system at Hurlbutt, opening a second elementary school off campus, building a new high school and moving the Middle School to the current high school building; building a new high school and converting the current building to an intermediate elementary school. The availability of land for any off-site school was also investigated.
In the spring of 1998, the Board approved the recommendation of the Superintendent K. David Trigaux, to pursue with the Town the construction of a 3-5 school. Mr. Trigaux explained that having two elementary schools, a K-2 and a 3-5 school, would be the best educational plan for students and would reduce the size of each school (the K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 Middle School) to about 750 students. This modification to the 1995 plan and change school grade configuration was prompted by the revised enrollment projections, which were significantly higher than the district had previously encountered. It was the belief of Mr. Trigaux and the 1998 Board of Education that this was, indeed, the best educational choice. (Two members of the current Board of Education took part in that decision.)
The Board of Education presented its case to the Board of Selectmen. The original architects, Friar Associates, were contacted, and they presented their ideas to the Selectmen in the early summer of 1998. Various school sites were being considered at that time, including an adjacent property that was for sale (the Rappaport house), Revson soccer field, an area of the then-undeveloped property off Norfield Road (now Norfield Farm Lane), and a site on School Road.
The idea of building a new high school was seriously considered, and Friar determined that the cost differential between building a new high school and building the proposed intermediate elementary school would be $15 to $20 million, assuming no land had to be purchased. To build a new high school would require 35 acres (a fact confirmed by Fletcher-Thompson, the current architectural firm being used). This amount of acreage was not available on campus. (and, even today, the Heady property does not meet the requirements for a high school). If an adequate tract of land were to be found in town and would be available for purchase, the 1998 ball-park figure for land acquisition was approximately $150,000 per acre; the land acquisition cost would be in addition to the originally estimated expense of the high school building project (at that time projected to be $50-60 million). In addition to the cost of the high school itself (building and possibly land purchase), the expense of converting the present high school to a school of another grade configuration has to be included in the cost estimates.
In September 1998, it was decided that a second opinion was needed, and the Town sought the services of a school facilities planner. This planner was given the charge to develop a 10-year plan that would include analysis of options, schematic designs, project schedules, and a financial impact statement for the facility needs of the Weston Public Schools. In addition, the planner was to make recommendations for the most efficient, educationally effective, and cost-effective utilization of the existing schools and to develop various action plans to handle increased enrollment.
In March 1999, the facilities planning consortium of OR & L was awarded the contract after a lengthy interview process. A town-wide steering committee was formed to work with OR&L. The Facilities Planning Steering Committee, cochaired by the First Selectman and the Chairman of the Board of Education, included representatives of the Boards of Education, Selectmen, Finance and the Town Building Committee. Ex-officio members included the Superintendent of Schools, Town Administrator, and Town Engineer; the advisory members included representatives from the Recreation Commission, Conservation Commission, P&Z, the school principals, parents (PTO presidents), and others.
In September and October 1999, two community workshop meetings were held. OR&L presented some preliminary recommendations. These were discussed by the community in open forum for a total of more than 5 hours. The purpose of these meetings was twofold: to exchange ideas and share some preliminary architectural concepts, and to obtain public comment and feedback on these concepts. OR&L presented their final report in February 2000.
During 1999-2000, the septic problem became an almost insurmountable stumbling block to moving forward with school expansion. The school building issues were placed on the back burner to simmer until resolution of the septic issue could be achieved.
As a result of the lack of forward movement on the building project, the Board of Education has had to bring in portable classrooms to house the students at the Middle School. Actually the process began in September in 1998, and each year more “trailers” have been added to the Weston school campus. We currently have 25 portables on campus (12 are “Kinderland”, 10 at the middle school and 3 at the high school). In order to address the space crunch at the Middle School, this September the 4th grade returned to Hurlbutt, a location it left “temporarily” in 1993 because of the space crunch at the “old” Hurlbutt (it was then three separate buildings)
Over the past several years many individuals and groups have worked to solve the space crunch in the Weston Schools. These have included Weston Boards of Education, the Boards of Selectmen, the Building Committees, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, the P & Z Commission, the disbanded Facilities Steering Committee of the late 1999s, the Select Committee on the Impact of Sewage Treatment on the Character of Weston, The School Facilities Subcommittee of the Board of Education, The Select Team for School Planning and Development.
It has been a long, bumpy, and circuitous road, but achieving the objective may be close at hand.