Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Local News

Proponents Push for New North Branford High School

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Community member Lynn Riordan holds up a message to arriving Town Council members during an Oct. 20 rally where proponents turned out with signs asking the council to approve a new $66 million high school building to replace the town's problem-plagued facility built in 1964.

Pam Johnson/The Sound

Community member Lynn Riordan holds up a message to arriving Town Council members during an Oct. 20 rally where proponents turned out with signs asking the council to approve a new $66 million high school building to replace the town's problem-plagued facility built in 1964. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

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Supporters rallying for a new North Branford High School wave signs as vehicles arrive for an Oct. 20 Town Council meeting at Town Hall. 

Pam Johnson/The Sound

Supporters rallying for a new North Branford High School wave signs as vehicles arrive for an Oct. 20 Town Council meeting at Town Hall. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

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Parent, PTO leader and new high school facility proponent Liz Braun Hoskins (far right) organized the rally and stood with other proponents outside North Branford Town Hall on Oct. 20. 

Pam Johnson/The Sound

Parent, PTO leader and new high school facility proponent Liz Braun Hoskins (far right) organized the rally and stood with other proponents outside North Branford Town Hall on Oct. 20. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

With the clock ticking down on a November 15 state reimbursement application deadline, community proponents are pushing North Branford's Town Council to vote to fund a new $66 million high school facility. The net cost to the town, at estimated state reimbursement rates, would be approximately $40,835,000. The Board of Education (BOE) has already voted unanimously in favor of constructing a new high school building on the school campus.

The new building option has been gathering vocal public support since it was first introduced as one of three options at a joint public meeting of the Town Council and BOE in February 2020. That meeting also introduced a less cost-effective option to renovate/expand the existing building to "as new,"  and the lowest cost option of maintaining the existing North Branford High School (NBHS) building, built in 1964, with upgrades. 

The "maintain"option would address issues such as failing pipe systems, inefficient windows and upgrading building HVAC. The fixes are estimated to cost about $20 million with little state reimbursement anticipated. In addition to being plagued with problems and operating with a patchwork of fixes and repairs, the existing building layout and instructional spaces at NBHS don't meet 21st century teaching needs.

In June 2020, the Town Council put North Branford in the running for school project state reimbursement eligibility next year, by voting to meet a June 30 state deadline to submit for the reimbursement of either a renovate as-new or build new project. Over the summer, a council-appointed ad hoc Permanent Building Committee further reviewed the three options, including other potential campus locations for new building option, and reported back to the council over the ensuing months.

The question before the council right now is to decide whether or not it will back submitting either a renovate as-new or build new 2020 state school project reimbursement application. Final documents for either choice would need to submitted to the state by Nov. 15 in order to make it onto the state's December, 2020 project reimbursement priority list.  If the town misses the deadline, the process of applying for state reimbursement would have to start over next year.

However, due to declining enrollment, the town would be in line for less state reimbursement money next year, according to the BOE's project team. The Nov. 15, 2020 application would be submitted at a high point of enrollment, with 524 students at NBHS, allowing for 97,726 square feet of project building space eligible for reimbursement. A 2021 application would reflect the district's projected lower academic population of 490, allowing for only 93,000 square feet of building space to be eligible for reimbursement.

That information was shared with the council on Oct. 20 by NBHS project architect Rusty Malik (QA+M Architecture, Farmington). Malik also noted the present economy's sluggish new construction sector also plays into the town's favor if the project sticks to the current timeline and is put out to bid by spring/summer 2021. Malik said using a two-phased bid approach would allow the construction project to get started in time.

"Right now, construction people are looking for work," said Malik; noting another project in his firm's purview, pegged at $64 million and recently put out to bid, came back $5 million under, because "...people are looking for work. And that's projected [to continue] into next spring and summer."

The Town Council is also currently looking at potentially "bundling" bonding the NBHS project with two other major capital expenses; a new police station, currently pinned at $7.5 million, and new emergency communications system. When the three projects were initially discussed among council members in the summer, it was estimated that, for a tax payer with an average $300,000 home, the combined new project bonding would add approximately $516 per year to property tax costs for the span of the debt service.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker said now is the time to take advantage of the town's strong bond rating and low market rates with a three-project bonding package.

"Money is inexpensive right now. This is a good time to bond money. Our bond rating is strong, and if we capitalize on a police station, a communications center and a [new] building, we can get better bang for our buck," said Schoonmaker.

Schoonmaker added that building a new "flagship high school" would also help to bolster the town's home real estate market, which is now competing with surrounding towns with flagship schools.

Schoonmaker said the comprehensive work that's gone into developing the plan to build a new high school has created the best option for the town, now and in the future.

"We looked at the data, we looked at research, we looked at the student body population, we looked at the changing demographics; and we did something that the entire community can be proud of, and that the entire community can use as a resource," said Schoonmaker.

NBHS principal Todd Stoeffler praised the school district and BOE's work supporting academic excellence for the town's high school students and educational programming through the years, but said the current high school building does not match the exceptional caliber of its learning community.

"The building has had a nice history, but it's really seen it's life. We're overdue; but if the overdue results in a new building, it's worth the wait. So I'm really hopeful that the Town Council, with the Board of Education's endorsement for a new building, moves forward in a timely way," said Stoeffler, adding, "...it's also a time that's really a sweet spot, if you will, from a financial standpoint. So I'm really hoping, for the town of North Branford and the school district, that we can move forward with a new building."

Many citizens have been speaking out in support of new high school building since the idea was first shared at the February 2020 meeting. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, a sizable crowd of proponents held a rally outside Town Hall, waving signs as council members arrived for the night's regular Town Council meeting. Town Manager Michael Paulhus told Zip06/The Sound that the council would not vote on the matter on Oct. 20; but that, in order to meet the state deadline, the council would need to vote on or before its next regular meeting on Nov. 10. A special meeting can be called ahead of the date, if deemed necessary by the council. Ad hoc committee members are slated for an Oct. 27 virtual meeting with the state which is anticipated to answer some additional questions in advance of the Town Council's next meeting.

Parent of three, PTO leader and new high school facility proponent Liz Braun Hoskins organized the Oct. 20 rally and also generated a well-supported online petition in September which was submitted to the council earlier this month. She and several other parents were invited to speak to the council at the Oct. 20 meeting, which was held following COVID-19 guidelines and livestreamed by Totoket TV.

Hoskins' son attends NBHS. She told Zip06/The Sound many conditions endured by students at the current high school -- from freezing corridors to backed-up bathrooms and beyond --  are "unacceptable" and can't be shored up with more Band-Aid fixes. She said the Oct. 20 rally was meant to help show the Town Council it needs to move forward with a decision to build a new high school.

"We're trying to get people rallied and behind this to get it moving before we miss our deadline," said Hoskins. "They had an ad hoc committee that worked really hard over the summer and put forth some ideas and suggestions, but I think we're at the 11th hour now. We've got to get it to the state by November 15, so we're cutting it close. It's long overdue, and it needs to happen."



Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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