Walsh Project Faces Possible State Bonding Cut

Sally E. Bahner PhotoThe specter of Connecticut’s fiscal crisis in relation to the Walsh Intermediate School project was finally raised at a special meeting of the Public Building Commission Monday night.

Charles Warrington, Jr., senior project manager for Colliers International, owner’s representative, reported that the cap of the bonding used for school projects statewide through the Office of School Construction Grants and Review (OSCGR) may be halved, from $700 million-$800 million to $400 million.

Sally E. Bahner Photo“We’re on the priority list,” said Warrington (pictured), adding that they’re looking at “shovel-ready projects.”

However, Warrington said that the Walsh project would total about 10 percent of the available bonding if it were halved. The town is expecting some $33 million toward the project, which has been budgeted at a total of $88.2 million. If the cuts go forward the amount to be received by the town for the school is unclear.

What is clear is that before state bonding is decided, the state’s budget must be finalized by the state legislature and approved by the governor. As of today, a state budget impasse continues, leaving the state without a budget for 33 days. The legislature will have to pass a budget with enough revenue to fund the bonds on the priority list. How that happens remains to be seen.

“They’re changing the rules on a weekly basis,” said Warrington. He said they should know about the bonding in a couple of weeks and plan on advertising the project in December.

Sally E. Bahner Photo“Is there a contingency plan?” asked Commissioner James Killelea.

Warrington explained that in the worst case scenario, “we won’t get the funding, but we’ve never been in that position… This is new territory.”

Hernandez Seeks Advocates

Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez asked, “What sort of advocacy can we do?” He added that the project is shovel ready, and concerted efforts have been made toward its progress.   

Warrington said that it’s going back to the legislators. “I keep hearing different stories… It all comes down to the budget. It’s not a part of the operating budget. It’s part of the bonding – how they are going to prioritize the projects.”

The problem in delaying the project, he said, is escalating costs, which amount to 3 ½ to 4 percent a year; that’s about $3 million a year in the case of Walsh.

“We need to contemplate multiple courses of action, including advocacy,” said Hernandez.

Warrington said that, to date, invoices totaling $2,175,000 have been approved by the town.

P&Z Hearings Recapped

Michael LoSasso of Antinozzi Asssociates, architects for Walsh, reported that the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) had approved the application with conditions, including the construction of a right hand turn lane at the western exit.  He added that the largest tree on the site may be impacted and they need to determine how to handle it. He added that other issues such as landscaping can be easily addressed.

LoSasso also presented a detailed written response to concerns and questions expressed by Building Commission members over the course of the Walsh project.

The list covered questions regarding the upgrade of the pool and locker areas, and handicap access to that area; the use of Stony Creek aggregate along pedestrian areas; the addition of skylights to the corridors; the decorative design of the exterior resin panels; traffic circulation around the school and parking configurations; landscaping; and storm water and bio-retention area. Many of the concerns were addressed during the P&Z’s public hearings.

RTM Member Challenges Walsh Expenditure

At public meetings some elected officials have voiced criticism of the Walsh project, especially its costs. However, Peter Jackson, a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and a New Haven architect, has been outspoken against the project, writing letters to the Building Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals back in March.

On July 13, he wrote to Joe Aresimowicz, speaker of the state House of Representatives, urging that “the Legislature withhold approval of State funding for WIS until a thorough review can assess a much more economical, architecturally respectful and inventive reuse of the entire existing building.”

Jackson, whose wife Catherine was a former chair of the Board of Education, described the school as the “crown jewel of all Branford facilities,” and listed many of the school’s attributes, including a swimming pool, large gyms, student kitchens and a vast teacher area and an expandable cafetorium and lecture hall. The school, he wrote, is operating at only about 56% of its intended student capacity and its physical condition is excellent (including a new roof). 

“It lacks only a systematic re-organization of its flexible, open classroom floor plan into discreet classrooms and corridors, and it contains a much greater area than is necessary to accomplish this end,” Jackson writes. He believes that a year of inconvenience for a renovation would be preferable to the expenditure. 

Jackson ended his letter by saying that “at a time of crisis for Connecticut’s finances (or even in more flush times), approval of this project, in its present form, is wasteful in the extreme and I urge you to remove it from Bond resolution.”

Community House/Senior Center Update

First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove updated the commission on the Community House/Senior Center project, which has gone out for bid; the deadline for bids is Aug. 23.

Cosgrove said the Church Street parcel will go before the P&Z Sept. 7 for a decision on an additional parking area on the site and an Oct. 2 closing date is anticipated.

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posted by: scjerry on August 3, 2017  7:08am

As a retiree facing an extreme yearly real estate tax bill, I find Peter Jackson’s critique of the Walsh project right on target. With a declining student enrollment, and a bankrupt state treasury, we in Branford spend money like there is no tomorrow. Problem is there is a tomorrow and this administration is attempting to shove Costco down our throats to pay for tomorrow, never mind the environmental and aesthetic impact of an endeavor which attracts a low-end workforce who cannot afford to live here.

posted by: patrickbateman on August 3, 2017  8:48pm

scjerry,

I’m a Branford parent of 3 currently in elementary school. We frequently visit Walsh for swimming lessons, public swim, day camp, and holiday care.

The costs may be large, but this has to be seen from a larger picture, rather than in the narrow light of short term budget issues with the state. The current schools layout does not work well for the teachers who have to speak over other teachers, due to the open nature of the class rooms, and it doesn’t work well for the students attention for the same reasons.

We’re well beyond the point of doing nothing. Something has to be done about this school. Personally, I think it’s dated and rather ugly. That’s not a great reason to tear it down, but it has to be teared down or renovated; leaving it as-is is does not benefit our communities future leaders.

posted by: scjerry on August 4, 2017  6:10am

First of all, from 1945 until 1950, I attended a one-room school house with about 40 kids, all under the direction of a strict disciplinarian. So open classrooms are very familiar to me. That said, Peter’s proposal should be re-read…here’s a direct quote from above: “It lacks only a systematic re-organization of its flexible, open classroom floor plan into discreet classrooms and corridors, and it contains a much greater area than is necessary to accomplish this end,” Jackson writes. He believes that a year of inconvenience for a renovation would be preferable to the expenditure. ” . So he is not advocating doing nothing, he’s advocating an architectural redo for much less cost. Secondly, the budget problems are far from being short-term. We’ll be paying for $83 M for decades even with state aid (which may not be forthcoming). Thirdly, as to aesthetics, have you seen the conceptual rendering of the proposed re-construction?  Please review this Branford Eagle article: http://bit.ly/2u7xTmu. It’s a cross between an office building and a prison block. Fourthly, student enrollments are in decline, and given the economic trends not likely to soon reverse direction. Some CT towns are closing schools.