Finance board addresses Miller-Driscoll’s potential empty space
A big problem facing the quickly progressing, $50-million Miller-Driscoll renovation is the potential for unoccupied space, which the Board of Finance weighed in on during its July 19 meeting.
Despite a late surge in 2016-17 enrollments that will fill one more Miller-Driscoll classroom than last year, Facilities and Energy Management Director Chris Burney told the finance board, the worst-case scenario would be a double-digit number of empty classrooms.
After First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice shared population statistics and projections at a recent Miller-Driscoll Building Committee meeting, Burney said, the committee asked him to discuss “any opportunities to reduce the scope of the project” with Turner Construction and the architects.
“There are opportunities — we are discussing them and we will present some options probably by the end of the summer — but they’re not particularly attractive,” said Burney.
One option would be to “stop construction and not build a certain part” of the school, said Burney. “The problem with that is we already paid for it — not in terms of cash, but we had the bid price.”
Burney said the town wouldn’t get any money back and would have to pay the architects and engineers to redesign the section.
“If we just simply said, ‘Don’t do it,’ we may get 60 cents saved on the dollar, which is not a great return,” he said.
“If you look at what that bond and mortgage would come to the next 20 years, that might be an option and opportunity that would seem more possible.”
Repurposing the building — such as moving the Board of Education offices into the empty space — is another option, said Burney. “We all know we have to think outside the box for this one.”
“If we could identify enough empty space and arrange it within a single area, we could separate that piece of the building from the rest of the building and it would then be available for other uses,” said Burney.
“Doing that would require a different educational model because right now, they are segregated to some extent by age and this would require more integration.”
Burney said repurposing part of the school would also go against “the original concept that the youngest children would have their own secure entrance.”
“We would flip them to the other side with the other children,” he said, “and that would create traffic problems.”
Burney noted that if the space is not used for educational purposes, the town will not receive the same amount of grant pay-back from the state.
“If we use it for educational office space, I’ve been told we would get half of what we’d get for the school, so instead of 22% reimbursement, we would get 11%,” he said.
Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said the news of potential empty space at Miller-Driscoll is “good and bad.”
“The bad is that we designed a school much bigger than what our needs are,” he said. “In retrospect, significantly larger — and that’s going to cost us money.”
The “good news,” said Rutishauser, is that “we’re taking time now to see what we can do at this point … to see if there’s some way to save some money [and] see if there are some ways we can more efficiently use [the space].”
“It’s a big project; it’s an expensive project and it would be nice if we filled up the space that we plan to build,” he said.
“I know there are limitations about what you can do at this point, but if there is a way to utilize some of that space for some alternative, let’s see if we can do that.”
Burney said construction at the school will slow down significantly at the end of the summer.
“We will finish the new piece of construction around October and then the students will move into that,” he said. “At that point, we have a very mild schedule for work.”
Work will pick up a little over Christmas and spring break, said Burney, but the next real push will come next summer.
“What that tells me is that if we can make the decision in the fall about what will happen, we have until the summer of next year when it becomes impactful,” he said.
“Any work that is going to be changed would be changed with necessity during next summer’s schedule.”
Berney said the goal is to be substantially completed with the renovation project by Labor Day 2017.
The next Miller-Driscoll Building Committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m., in Wilton High School’s library mezzanine.