Selectmen OK Bringing M-D Renovation Plan to Voters

At last evening’s Board of Selectmen meeting, town officials moved one small step closer to town-wide consideration of renovation of the Miller-Driscoll School. They unanimously approved moving forward with a plan dubbed “Option One” in order to prepare to put the plan up for a town-wide vote in September.

In the open forum of last night’s meeting, the selectmen reviewed the approximately 30 or so questions they’d previously submitted to the M-D building committee since the committee’s presentation two weeks ago about a recommended renovation plan.

First selectman Bill Brennan explained that getting the questions answered in public would help the board proceed with moving the recommended $38.9 million renovation “option one” forward to the next phase—design and construction, which the town would have to approve at a Sept. 23 special town meeting.

Topping the list of questions, the selectmen wanted to know whether the proposed renovations would accommodate any increases in the number of students beyond enrollment projections. The building committee members told officials that the design would accommodate an enrollment increase of 11 percent, including common space areas like the gym, library, assembly areas and cafeteria.

They assured the selectmen that the design would accommodate future changes and improvements in instructional methodology and philosophy, including technology and data distribution. That includes wireless capability, new room arrangements and flexibility.

Building committee chair Bruce Hampson told the BoS that, once renovated, “the entire facility will meet the CT high performance building requirements.” As Hampson explained, those requirements relate to school building construction that costs in excess of $2 million, and identify energy and ventilation requirements.

Hampson also explained that at the project’s current stage, without schematics, the committee couldn’t estimate energy costs savings; however, because the building would have to meet the CT high performance guidelines which require that overall energy use be better than current code by 21 percent, “just following those guidelines we will be saving a significant amount over what we’re spending now.”

One area where costs might be reduced is in the area of staffing–particularly with regard to maintenance and cafeteria staff. Because the mechanicals would be modernized and improved, and the square footage would be reduced after renovation, there would be less need for maintenance. As well, by reducing the cafeterias from two to one would allow for staff reductions and costs in this area.

The new plan would increase the number of available parking spaces by 55 additional spots. Both selectmen and and committee members acknowledged that while that may “never be sufficient,” it was an increase.

The new pre-K area would have five general classrooms as well as OT/PT space and a multipurpose room. To accommodate enrollment increases there, Hampson explained that the OT/PT and multipurpose spaces could be repurposed as general classrooms if needed, providing a 40 percent increase in classroom capacity. However, that would force spillover for any kind of therapeutic activities to the K-2 OT/PT spaces and corridors. The design would potentially allow for more space to be constructed.

As part of the project, approximately $640,000 would cover an estimated eight temporary classrooms, according to Ty Tregellas from Turner Construction. One selectman, James Saxe, asked if the committee had considered using alternate space already available in town to avoid that cost. Selectman Richard Dubow, who also serves on the building committee, mentioned that there had been some discussion along those lines, for example to move an entire grade elsewhere, but that it was determined “educationally to not make a lot of sense.” Brennan asked Hampson to reconsider it without rejecting the concept outright, and Hampson agreed, although he did say that it had been discussed with school administrators already, and space to accommodate such relocation “doesn’t currently exist.”

As they suggested two weeks ago, the building committee believes that the renovation would extend the life of the building by approximately 25-30 years. “We have to certify to the state as a condition of receiving reimbursement that what is done on the project has to last a minimum of 20 years,” Hampson said.

The issue of indoor air quality (IAQ) was raised again, with Brennan asking, “How will the IAQ differ with option one?” Hampson replied that, “The design will include a building management system that will continually monitor the ventilating system, relative humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide. The system will meet the high performance building guidelines for ventilation which are strict. We will use filters that are high efficiency and the fans will operate continuously during occupancy, to maintain continuous filtration.”

Citing what he called “keen interest in this area,” Brennan encouraged Turner Construction’s Tregellas to make sure that any temporary classrooms that are rented for construction phase also incorporate indoor air quality monitoring systems.

Tregellas also outlined steps the construction crews would take to minimize any air quality problems during construction, including barriers and other methods to reduce dust migration. He said there would be an entire IAQ program that’s put in place. He said air quality sampling and monitoring would be ongoing during the “abatement phase,” but that it could also be conducted during the construction phase if requested.

With regard to the $38.9 million price tag, the BoS wanted to know “how realistic” it was, and whether there were any factors that could significantly change that number.

Tregellas said that when a project goes to the next phase, where architects make more refined schematic drawings, “Typically the number will go up a bit, and we go through an evaluative engineering process to right size it back to a number we feel can be presented to the town and succeed.” He reminded the BoS that the number is more conceptual than concrete, and was intended to help officials compare the two options rather than be a price presented to voters. “There is another step that needs to happen.”

Brennan replied that, “I think we all recognize that we are early in a stage of this project, because you can’t estimate precisely if you don’t have a design or construction drawing. However we are really trying to manage expectations; we want to be putting a number into the community that is somewhat realistic, and not, when it comes to a town meeting, it’s materially higher. It’s important to be communicating that number, as we go along, particularly if we see something that’s changing, up or down.”

Based on the current plan, the estimated completion date for “option one” is August 2018; “option two” was estimated to be completed by December 2017.

If the town rejects the recommended plan for renovation, it would only increase the cost to the plan because of ‘escalation,’ or the increasing cost of goods over time. Hampson said, “The committee strongly believes that Option one is the very best option for the town to do right now and will be approved for that reason. Any delay in making that decision would result in a greater cost to do what is necessary to be done anyway to insure that Miller Diriscoll continues as an outstanding learning facility. Option two–which we absolutely do not recommend–for $34.8 million basically takes care of all capital projects, the code issues that have to be done, and a down-sized pre-K, is bare bones. For $4 million more, we believe that the town will see that value and approve it. We don’t suggest a pared down or option two at this point.”

Given the time it will take to have adequate schematics made to take to the town for a decision, the committee felt they could not schedule this as an item to be voted upon at the Annual Town Meeting in May. But because the town does not want to continue incurring additional escalation costs, and because they don’t want to continue to defer much-needed improvements on the school, they don’t want to push the vote off until May 2015. Thus the approval question will be scheduled for September 2014.