Sensible Wilton questions $50 million renovation

Years of stalled plans and rising costs have left some Wilton residents suspicious of a recently proposed plan to renovate the Miller-Driscoll school.

The leaders of Sensible Wilton say their newly formed group hopes to vocalize concerns, both fiscal and educational, about the proposed $50-million renovation of the school.

Stressing that his group is not “anti-schools,” member Ken Dartley said Sensible Wilton is more focused on helping the town make a good school — not just an expensive one.

“We need a long-range plan for schools in Wilton, where the key focus is the children, not architectural beauty,” he said. “The children should be able to learn well, and should be safe.”

In the end, he said, the project may cost even more than $50 million, something he sees as acceptable so long as the right combination of amenities and improvements are put in place.

“We need to look at both the tax bill and the quality of education,” he said.

The two largest problems at the school, members of Sensible Wilton say, are an aging HVAC system and deteriorating roof. The problems have been known since at least 2007, but there has yet to be any substantive measures taken to correct the issues.

Group members says they wonder why the building committee is willing to let students pass through Miller-Driscoll for another two to three years without fixing the systems, which the group says is causing students to become ill.

“It may seem strange to fix something right before you tear it down, but it may be what we need to do,” Mr. Dartley said.

Cost escalation since the first acknowledgment of the roof and HVAC problems is a large part of the group’s opposition to the school, members say.

In 2009, the town estimated it would cost approximately $10 million to replace aging roofing, siding, and HVAC systems.

Now, saying the school is in urgent need of widespread repairs, that number has climbed to $50 million, with the new project providing significantly more changes than the initial project.

“We’re not against the Miller-Driscoll plan, per se,” said group member Joe Brenner. “We’re against how they are going about it. We’re not anti-schools, we’re pro good schools, and good buildings. How did we get to those solutions before” at such a lower cost?

At Middlebrook, he continued to say, it cost $3 million to renovate the roof and HVAC system. Now at Miller-Driscoll, the town is planning to spend $50 million on a nearly new school.

“How did that happen?” Mr. Brenner said.

One of the main reasons the building committee has given for the expansion is to accommodate a growing special needs preschool population.

Sensible Wilton members say there should be a closer look at serving preschool children off-site in an already-existing building such as the old Gilbert & Bennett school in Georgetown or the Comstock Community Center, where a preschool once existed.

Wants and needs

According to the group, those leading the design of the project have become too focused on “wants,” rather than “needs” of the town’s youngest children.

For instance, group member Curt Noel said last week, the proposed architectural redesign at Miller-Driscoll to improve “line-of-sight” and the flow of student movement at the school — which has been justification for demolishing the pre-existing preschool pod — is a large-ticket item that is not necessary.

“The pod is the best built part of the school,” he said. “None of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee has ever had a child in the school — past or present — and the architecture firm is obviously unfamiliar with the school. It can be a bit confusing at first, but ‘line-of-sight’ is not what’s really needed.”

“We’ve moved off of the HVAC system and the roof,” two aspects of the school Mr. Noel and the rest of Sensible Wilton feel are true necessities.

Instead of “tearing down the best-built pod” to get a clear line of sight, group member Alex Ruskewich asked, why not just install a closed-circuit surveillance system?

“Will the line of sight be improved by knocking down the pod [versus closed-circuit cameras]?” he asked.

While the school building committee suggests the removal of the playground from the front to the rear of the school, members of the group also question that plan.

“It’s a smaller space, there are no open fields, it’s sloped, and there’s bad drainage,” Mr. Noel said, citing research conducted by Wilton resident Marissa Lowthert. “It also reduces visibility of the children and reduces adult supervision.”

In today’s STEM-focused academic environments, the group also feels the lack of a science room in the new building is foolish.

“To reduce science teaching today is criminal,” Mr. Noel said.