Town councilors have approved a two-school concept for a referendum in May, but stopped short of saying where those two proposed elementary schools would go.
During Monday’s (Feb. 28) council meeting, Councilman William Ryan’s motion to send the two-school option to a referendum passed by a 6-3 vote.
But, it was based “on the provision” the council select the two sites by its March 14 meeting.
But after failing to get a majority on two of the three scenarios presented, the council decided to adjourn the meeting after four hours and reconsider the sites before forcing a decision.
School board Chairman Mark LaPlaca urged the council to consider the three scenarios for a site before making a vote, saying each location has its “pluses and minuses.”
Council members also said they wanted to seek public input from residents.
The proposed location of the two new elementary schools would impact the price tag because the town would need to purchase more land if it wanted to place a school at the Dorothy C. Goodwin site, raising the proposal by $450,000.
The other sites discussed are the current locations of Annie E. Vinton and Southeast elementary schools.
Without the purchase of land around Goodwin, located on Hunting Lodge Road, the two-school project currently has an estimated price of $57,629,000.
The project would also include renovations to Mansfield Middle School.
Current projections call for a state reimbursement grant of 58.4 percent, meaning the town would be responsible for $23.98 million of construction costs.
With bonding costs, the project would have a $37.49 million price tag for the town, but also would have more than $15.6 million in savings after consolidating the three elementary schools into two.
The council learned Monday it could get the current reimbursement rate from the state if residents approve a project in May, not the reduced rate in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget.
Councilmen Christopher Paulhus, Meredith Lindsey and Denise Keane – participating via phone – all voted against the proposal, saying they were worried about the costs of the project.
Lindsey said the council needed to balance educational and financial obligations, and all three supported renovating the three elementary schools and MMS over 20 years, funding the project with cash and not through bonding.
But that motion was defeated by a 3-6 vote.
The three Republican councilmen, though, pointed to a possible budget forecast from Town Manager Matthew Hart and Finance Director Cherry Trahan that looked at other possible projects and expenses in the future.
Hart noted the town is also looking at other issues in town, including water service for the area around the intersection of routes 44 and 195, increases in funding for the fund balance and capital improvement plan, and possible additions to the town’s resident trooper program.
Council Vice Chairman Antonia Moran pressed Hart for his own view, and Hart, a member of the school building committee, noted he had endorsed an option to build one large elementary school in March 2010.
The forecast, based on the two-school option, calls for the budget to increase to $52.4 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year, a projected increase of 7.9 percent over the previous year, and a corresponding 11.06 percent tax increase.
Under the forecast, the budget would reach $60 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, with a projected tax rate of 38.48 mills.
Councilman Peter Kochenburger said the forecast was based on a “wish list” of items for the town and the council likely would not complete all the projects and upgrades.
LaPlaca and some councilmen, meanwhile, said they expected the Storrs Center project to produce more than a 1 percent increase in the grand list annually, the rate Hart and Trahan used to calculate mill rates.
Councilmen favoring the twoschool option said they wanted to take advantage of the current state reimbursement rate after learning they could get the rate with referendum approval by May.
Project architect Rick Lawrence, of The Lawrence Associates, provided the council with an email from the state Bureau of School Facilities saying current legislation says the town gets the rate in place at the time a project is approved by residents.
The town would then need approval from the state legislature and the school facilities bureau, but the email states the town would be locked into the 58.4 percent rate under current legislation.
Lawrence said many other towns have approved projects in recent months and would be on the same timeline as Mansfield.
He said he finds it unlikely the state would pass legislation and retroactively reduce rates for those projects.
Councilmen, meanwhile, noted they could pull the project back if the state does change the rates and substantially increases the town’s costs.
Malloy’s proposed rate of 47.4 percent would mean $6.35 million less in state aid for a two-school project, and many councilmen originally opposed to the price tag under Malloy’s figure supported it Monday night.
LaPlaca, meanwhile, noted a move to build two new schools would result in roughly $11 million in staffing reductions and $4.6 million in maintenance savings, which Trahan said would equate to $ 821,600 in savings annually over the 20-year bond.
Ryan was the only councilman voicing support for the one-school option, but also voted in favor of two schools after the council first voted 8-1 to abandon the one-school option. The one-school option would cost $50.1 million, with the town’s share being $19.85 million.
Despite being less costly, the one-school option was not endorsed by town and education officials, citing a desire for the smaller neighborhood school concept.
Residents appeared split on whether to build two new elementary schools or renovate the existing structures, but agreed during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting they did not want one large school.
Ryan and others on the council also agreed they did not want to send a project to referendum without specifying the location of the two schools.
Ryan and Moran expressed concerns about the increased costs and uncertainty going forward if the town targeted the Goodwin site, as the town does not have the additional needed property yet.
But Kochenburger, Keane and Lindsey said they did not want a proposal resulting in no new school in the northern side of town for various reasons.
The council did vote against motions to place the schools at the Southeast and Goodwin sites, as well as at the Vinton and Southeast sites, but Town Clerk Mary Stanton said those motions can be made again.