Enrollment: Board of Ed considers options

Ox Ridge Principal Luke Forshaw and Mrs. Goldstein welcome Kelly Millery to the school in September 2012. (Darien Times/Laureen Vallente)

There are some questions left unanswered after a presentation about possible projects to increase classroom space in Darien, particularly what the best value would be and when it could be done.

Michael Lynch, facilities director, evaluated several options for the district’s space constraints after previously telling the Board of Education at a December 2012 meeting that he would look into the feasibility of new or additional construction at the schools.

The district’s enrollment projections revealed that by the 2013-14 school year, Hindley School might not have room for any ELP classrooms, while Tokeneke might need two spaces for other classes. Projections for subsequent school years leave the program without space for ELP at all.

Hindley and Tokeneke School are the only schools that house the Early Learning Program, the district’s preschool. Hindley currently has two ELP classrooms and one office in the building, and another office and storage in a portable space used by the director. Tokeneke has four ELP classrooms and four offices, according to Lynch’s report, and the director and speech therapist currently share an office.

Only two commercial buildings, both at 1540 Post Road, are adequate for the program and are available for purchase, according to Lynch. He determined that these buildings have space for parent and staff parking, a play area, and bus drop off and pick up. Only one of the two buildings is available to rent, according to the report. It could accommodate four classrooms, 4,300 square feet of office space, and storage space. The district would spend between $240,000 and $274,000 per year to lease the space, Lynch reported, and “commercial real estate firms want seven to ten year leases.” A shorter lease would cost more.

Tokeneke School, which was rebuilt in 2008, is the only building that already has areas ready for expansion. The back part of the school “was laid out to be expanded for either two, four, or eight classrooms,” but would require approval from Planning and Zoning, Lynch said. A full expansion of eight classrooms would cost $3,000,000, but would house the entire ELP program at one location, according to the report.

Renovating other schools would be more difficult and less comprehensive. At Royle School, rooms currently used for speech and physical therapy, art and computer labs could become five classrooms. This would require shifting the kitchen and cafeteria spaces. Royle currently has portables, which could be used at Ox Ridge and Holmes. This project would cost about $1.7 million, according to the report.

The Holmes building could be expanded for four to eight additional classrooms. The construction could be done while school is in session, Lynch said.

There is a possibility for expanded space at Ox Ridge School over a town-owned, “large wooded area adjacent to the school,” the report said. There are many questions at this location including whether the water, heat, electricity and sewer utilities would be able to handle a larger population, and whether the common room areas would be large enough as well.

There are no recommendations for Hindley because “many spaces are barely adequate for the existing population,” Lynch noted.

The location of the current senior center at 30 Edgerton is noted as a “viable option,” because it already has many spaces necessary for elementary school use, including nine classrooms. Renovation to this building would cost between $2.5 and $3.5 million, the report said. The space has also been considered for senior housing as part of the larger Shuffle project that will move the senior center to Town Hall, and the Board of Ed to the former library building on Leroy Avenue.

During her recent State of the Town address, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson mentioned the plans for senior housing were on hold until the Board of Education made a final decision on plans to deal with increasing enrollment.

The district has previously use portable classrooms, and continue to discuss portables as an option. These can be bought used or leased.

The last option listed is a program change, which means that that average class size could be modified at the “Administration’s recommendations.”

The report notes there is “no unused space” at the ten private nursery or preschool programs in Darien.

The current proposed budget does not account for any new construction projects in the next year, Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Education chairman, told The Darien Times. The district’s proposals are still in an “investigatory phase,” she said. “At this point in time, everything is still on the table because the board does not have dollar amounts or the timing on anything.”

The district has to wait for actual enrollment numbers, particularly from kindergarten, to decide on how much more space is necessary, Hagerty-Ross said.

The board expects to see clearer defined options at another facilities meeting, she said. The superintendent of schools has previously stated that he feels “comfortable” that there will be enough space for ELP in the 2013-2014 school year.

If Hindley has to move the preschool program, another school where enrollment could decrease, such as Royle, could accommodate the students, Hagerty-Ross said. Portables are an option, she noted, though they are still expensive – costing around $190,000 – and do not take into account the safety issues brought up recently.

Ultimately any of these projects would require a building committee and approval from the town. “It would be a capital project, and it would be a town project,” she said.

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