School plan touted as final solution

LITCHFIELD – If Town Meeting voters approve a proposal to construct a new elementary school for grades 1-5 and pre-kindergarten at a cost of about $20 million, it would be the last school the community will ever have to build, officials said Tuesday night.

During an informational forum sponsored by the School Board and the school building committee, members said based on enrollment projections and the amount of land that is available in town for new homes, officials have concluded that building the new school would solve the district’s short and long-term space needs.

About 15 people attended the session at Griffin Memorial School. Most were supportive of the plan for the new facility, but several said they thought the $20 million price would prompt residents worried about the tax impact to vote against it.

Because the project would be financed through a bond issue, a 60 percent majority would be needed for passage.

According to board Chairwoman Cindy Couture, the building committee investigated the option of renovating the Griffin building and constructing a smaller school, but decided that plan would not be cost effective.

Couture and architect Daniel Cecil of Auburn, Maine, said the ground water table on the Griffin site is extremely high and has caused serious problems with humidity and mold.

If the building were to be renovated, the water problem would $4.3 million, Cecil said.

That cost, coupled with a $14 million price tag for a smaller school, means residents would still be faced with a major expenditure of close to $20 million. Then the district would have to pay to operate two schools, and because the water and drainage problems on the Griffin site are so severe, “there are no guarantees’’ that even a comprehensive upgrade of the property would correct them, board member Ralph Boehm said.

“In the long run, we felt building one large school was a better buy for the town,” said Couture, adding that officials have been studying the district’s elementary school space needs for about 10 years.

The new school would be built near the middle school on property the district already owns, she said. It would have a core capacity of 1,000 students and initial enrollment of 774.

Couture said officials are also studying what to do with the Griffin building if the new school is approved. It could be demolished, used by the town for storage or recreation or possibly sold if some commercial use could be found for it, she said.

The building is old and badly in need of renovations. It has no sprinkler system for fire protection, so it doesn’t meet building code requirements. Its septic system and boilers are outdated. Because of the water problems, dehumidifiers are needed in every classroom, Cecil said.

Officials said they will have to mount a major informational campaign to sell townspeople on the plan for the new school.

Boehm said information on exactly how much of a tax impact the plan would have wasn’t available Tuesday, but Couture said the bond payments could be spread out over 15 or 20 years to soften the blow for homeowners.

Residents said the board should emphasize safety and health issues as it tries to convince voters to back the proposal for a new school. The water and mold problems at Griffin should be stressed, several said, along with the fact that a new facility would be more energy efficient and could be built without interrupting educational programs. If Griffin was renovated, the school would have to be closed for a year, and students would have to attend classes elsewhere, Cecil said.

Both Couture and Boehm said that while additions to the high school and elementary schools might be needed in the future, there never will be a need to construct a new school.

“It’s the last school we’ll ever have to build,” Boehm said.