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Board Recommends Building New $45 Million Charter Oak School

West Hartford Town Council will have final say when the budget is approved in late April.

The West Hartford Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday night in favor of building an entirely new Charter Oak International Academy facility.

Earlier this month, the 20-member advisory committee tasked with advising the Board of Education had expressed an overall preference for new construction rather than renovation.

Prior to that rebuild vs. renovation decision, the Board voted on the overall $49.3 million Capital Improvement Plan, which includes $45 million for Charter Oak as well as $250,000 for increased security measures and $500,000 for stadium lights. Following a fiery discussion about inclusion of the Charter Oak project in the Capital Improvement Plan, the vote was 5-2 in favor of the approving the plan, with Republicans Jay Sarzen and Mark Zydanowicz opposing.

The schools' Capital Improvement Plan can be found on the West Hartford Public Schools website.

The Board of Education's recommendation will be passed along to Town Manger Ron Van Winkle who will include it as he develops the overall West Hartford Capital Improvement Plan for approval by the Town Council in April.

During the discussion of the Capital Improvement Plan, Republicans Jay Sarzen and Mark Zydanowicz said they still had questions about the Charter Oak project, including the additional transportation and administrative costs that may be incurred with more magnet students and a larger facility, and concern about "clawback" provisions in the agreement with the state that might result in additional unfavorable measures such as busing or redistricting if enrollment projections at Charter Oak are not met.

Sarzen said he wanted to make sure we were "getting the best bang for our buck," with taxpayer money. "Would it not be better to redirect those dollars into the classroom to acutally help educate those kids?"

"The education of the kids is foremost. Building a shiny new school, is that really going to take care of it and increase the test scores?" asked Zydanowicz.

Zydanowicz proposed an amendment which would remove the $45 million for Charter Oak from the Capital Improvement Plan until the questions he and Sarzen raised could be addressed. However, Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward said that the plan needed to be determined Wednesday night, and delaying would push back the project for an entire year. The motion failed.

Other board members expressed faith in the process and due diligence.

Mark Overmyer-Velazquez praised the Charter Oak proposal as the "culmination of years of effort."

"This is the moment to say we believe in building a new Charter Oak," Vice Chair Elin Katz said.

When it came to the vote considering rebuilding or renovating, both Sarzen and Zydanowicz expressed strong support for building a completely new facility, and pledged support for marketing Charter Oak to new magnet students. "It's better, more cost-effective conceptually," Sarzen said.

West Hartford needs to take action in its "Unique Schools," Charter Oak and Smith STEM School, in order to comply with its "Plan to Promote Racial Diversity in West Hartford," that was also presented to the board Wednesday night and must be approved by the State Board of Education. Increasing the size of Charter Oak has been deemed the best method of achieving those goals.

The overall estimated cost of a brand new school ranges from $41 to $45 million based on a feasibility study prepared by planning architect Jim Barrett at Drummey Rosane Anderson and reviewed by the Charter Oak advisory committee. That estimate includes the cost of demolishing the existing structure. The renovation options being considered were slightly more costly, ranging from $42 to $49 million.

Although the full cost of the project is included in the Capital Improvement Plan, West Hartford's ultimate share is estimated to range from $9 to $16 million. Charter Oak's construction can be reimbursed by the state at a rate of 80 percent of eligible costs because the school is one of eight qualified "Diversity Schools.

Eligible costs are dictated by state regulations which provide a standard square footage for a school with a given population. Ward has stated that the standards specify approximately 70,000 square feet for a school with Charter Oak's population, but the proposal is for a larger building because it includes a cafeteria and auditorium as well as larger preschool spaces. A waiver of the standards will be sought to increase the dollar amount of the state's reimbursement.

If funding for the construction is approved by the Town Council, the new building could open in the spring of 2016.

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