Miller-Driscoll: What to do with excess space?

With school enrollments running on the low side of projections, the Board of Selectmen will take a look at the Miller-Driscoll renovation project to see if what might be excess space can be repurposed or if it should be “mothballed” until needed.

First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice attended the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee meeting on Thursday, June 9, to apprise members of the situation, although such a discussion has not yet been added to the board’s agenda. She reviewed population statistics that showed births in Wilton from 2011 to 2015 numbered 573. (This is higher than projections reported by UConn’s Connecticut State Data Center.)

Milone & MacBroom, the consulting firm that provides enrollment analysis and projection reports to the Board of Education, assumed a five-year birth rate of 591 for its “medium” projection and 589 for its “low” projection, 18 and 16 higher than the actual number. The town had been using the medium projection for its planning purposes.

The actual K-12 enrollment, taken on Oct. 1, 2015, was 4,104, lower than Milone & MacBroom’s low projection of 4,129.

“This certainly explains the discrepancy in the numbers that UConn published and which a number of residents have repeatedly brought to us saying the population decline will be significantly higher than what Milone & MacBroom are saying,” Vanderslice said. Sensible Wilton has used UConn’s projections in its argument against the size of the renovation project.

But the lower numbers also reinforce that “we are going to have a significant number of empty classrooms when we are done with this building,” Vanderslice said. “That is something we need to think about, we talked about it at the Board of Selectmen meeting, we talked about concerns with the Board of Education, I know maybe there’s been some back-of-the envelope work done on what’s the impact.”

Still, “since we’re trending lower than the low … if we’re not going to fill these classrooms for six to 10 years and there is another need for this space that has not been defined, is there a way this can be done so we’re not handicapping our ability to use that space.”

She said she asked Chris Burney, the town’s director of facilities and energy management, to address the issue with Turner Construction and architectural firm Tai Soo-Kim.

Not only is this a consideration from a building perspective but it may also affect state reimbursement for the project, which currently is expected to be $7.1 million.

“If you get state reimbursement for something, you’re pretty much tied for 20 years to use it only for school purposes,” she said.

“The way this project developed is the Board of Education created the specs, the specs went to the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Selectmen ultimately decided what the final specs were and that’s what was delivered to you [the building committee] so I wanted to make you aware of what’s been happening.”

“It would not be prudent to not think about this and not think about our reimbursement strategy,” she said.

Vanderslice’s announcement caused some consternation among members of the committee who pointed out that major construction was about to begin and a large percentage of the materials had been purchased.

She assured the committee this was all very preliminary, but when the question of the scope of the project was raised, she said the scope was contained in the statement of requirements and if that were to be changed it would be a matter for the Board of Selectmen “and then we’ll deal with how the Board of Selectmen does it.”

When pressed further, she said, “The idea is, if you don’t need the space now, do you commit yourself to classrooms or do you just not commit yourself and wait and see.”

She referred to the Comstock Community Center renovation where one wing has been left unfinished until a decision is made on how to use it.

Committee member John Kalamarides pointed out that when the plans for the school were developed the Board of Education was looking “20 to 25 years into the future.” He was also concerned the committee would not be consulted and would be taken by surprise by any decisions.

Vanderslice insisted all discussions would be held in public at the Board of Selectmen meetings.

“There’s no hidden agenda here,” she said. “There are no decisions that have been made, quite honestly.” She added she felt it would be “imprudent” to not have a discussion about the enrollment when it is lower than what officials thought it would be. It is possible, she said, the Board of Selectmen would choose to not make any changes.