Milford school settles on building wing

MILFORD – An addition at Heron Pond School, actually a separate building nearby, is the option chosen by the School Board to deal with overcrowding.

And thanks to insurance money for the arson-destroyed Garden Street School, it shouldn’t hit Milford pocketbooks too hard.

The roughly $4.2 million plan would build a new wing with 10 new classrooms onto Heron Pond, and move fifth-graders there from the overcrowded Milford Middle School.

More than half of the cost would be covered by a $2.7 million fire-insurance settlement for the former Garden Street School, which was destroyed in an arson blaze in March, just before Milford decided to tear it down. That money must be spent on building a replacement school.

The issue will be put on the annual School District ballot in March. If approved, the addition would probably open in September 2006.

“This plan simply turned out to be the best option available to us,” said Peter Bragdon, school board chairman. “It provided the best balance between cost, impact on the educational program, and what we feel to be the desires of the voters.”

The other main option being considered was to free up space by building a separate school near Heron Pond to hold younger grades.

The plan for the addition also calls for expanding the library by about 1,100 square feet, said Superintendent of School Robert Suprenant. Other core facilities, such as the cafeteria, are already big enough.

The School Board has tried to tackle Middle School overcrowding for years, but four different plans to expand that school have been rejected by voters.

One selling point to the new proposal is that it would remove fifth-graders from the middle school and put them within an elementary school, where the curriculum and pacing is more similar.

“I think middle schools are generally designed around grades 6 through 8 populations,” said Suprenant. “But at the same time, I think staff and (administrators) at the Middle School have done a nice job of gradually blending fifth graders into that environment.”

The Heron Pond addition was backed 4-1 by the School Board, with Cara Barlow dissenting.

Barlow said her concerns centered on a lack of discussion about how to handle public kindergarten and smaller class-size standards, if those matters are mandated by the state. They are included in possible new education standards being debated in Concord.

Barlow also noted that Heron Pond would have an enrollment of about 800 students under the plan, making it one of the largest elementary schools in the state.

“We haven’t had any discussion about how that will affect management and student learning. I’d want to have some of those questions answered before I support this,” she said.

Suprenant agreed that the size of Heron Pond would be an issue. Among other things, it would require the creation of a mealtime shift in the cafeteria, expanding lunchtime greatly.

“That may mean, so that students aren’t eating brunch instead of lunch, (we) may have to back up (the lunch) schedule a bit,” he said.

Aside from the insurance money, the cost impact of the addition could be further muted by the fact that two long-term bonds will be paid off within the next two years. The savings from this means voters might see no construction-related increase in their tax bill even if the addition passes.