BROOKFIELD Finance board approves Huckleberry project

November 29, 2018

BROOKFIELD — The finance board unanimously approved Wednesday night the $78.1 million proposal to build a new Huckleberry Hill Elementary School, sending the project to a special town meeting.

The vote brings the town another step closer to holding a referendum in March on the highly anticipated project. The special town meeting will be scheduled for sometime in January, but a public hearing will be held before that.

The new school is expected to cost Brookfield $63.3 million if the town receives the state grant it plans to apply for by the end of June. The school would serve pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

Board members agreed the project is necessary because the existing school, which was built in 1960 and underwent an addition in 1993, is in bad shape.

But they debated whether it would be possible to scale back the price tag on the 138,000-square-foot school that would be built on the existing Huckleberry site.

Member Dan Devorsetz said he was worried the town would be unable to manage the additional debt from the project and be forced to cut operating budgets in the future to prevent high tax increases.

“I simply fear for the financial flexibility, that this bond offering is going to hamstring us and not let us do literally anything else for a long time,” he said. “When we look at annual budgets and try to get annual budgets passed, they’re not going to be cut from the debt service. They’re going to be cut from other stuff. Every single other aspect of the town will be impacted.”

Town officials have presented the board with various models for how the project will likely impact debt service and taxes.

First Selectman Steve Dunn said these models show the town can handle the extra debt, especially with a plan to pay for more capital items with cash, rather than borrowing.

“That doesn’t hamstring us,” he said.

If the project is approved, pre-kindergarten through first grade would move out of 80-year-old Center Elementary School, saving the town an estimated $400,000 in energy and operations costs.

Fifth-graders would also leave the middle school, allowing the district to demolish the old portables, which would cost $700,000 to replace.

Dunn added he is not expecting any major budget increases next fiscal year on the town side.

It would be difficult for the town to reduce the cost of the project because everything in the plan is necessary, finance board member Eileen Koch said. The size of the school, for example, is based on state requirements.

”I don’t want to shortchange the school and make it smaller than it has to be,” Koch said.

Cutting costs would hurt the quality of the building and its systems and maybe reduce the size, said Colette Sturm, chair of the Board of Education.

“There isn’t a whole lot of fluff or fat (in the proposal) anyway,” she said.

The district had previously considered renovating the existing Huckleberry for $69.6 million, but that would double the construction time and would provide the school with only its “bare-bone” needs, Sturm said.

Dunn used the example of the Brookfield High School renovation, where aspects of the project were cut to keep within budget, leaving virtually everyone dissatisfied. He said it would be wrong to go with the a cheaper alternative, such as remodeling, for Huckleberry.

””Doing nothing is not an option, but doing the wrong thing is a very bad option,” Dunn said.

He argued the board should trust the architects and school board subcommittee that developed plans over more than two years and picked this project out of 10 choices.

With voter approval, construction would begin in the fall of 2020, with students moving into the new building in fall of 2022. The old Huckleberry would then be torn down.

Eventually, the school district also hopes to renovate Whisconier Middle School and complete isolated projects at the high school.

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