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Three Options Presented for Charter Oak Reconstruction

Costs to upgrade the West Hartford elementary school range from $41 to $49 million, with varying degrees of estimated reimbursement from the state.

The architect hired to conduct a feasibility study for the renovation or rebuilding of Charter Oak International Academy presented three different options to the committee this week, all of which carry total price tags in excess of $41 million.

"Right now the 'build new' option is the front-runner because it's the least disruptive. It offers the best value to the town and to the state," said West Hartford Public Schools Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward. A new school would also last longer and provide the most effective educational space, he said.

The Town of West Hartford hired Drummey Rosane Anderson as a planning architect – to develop space needs and provide estimated costs and timelines for either building a completely new school building or renovating the existing structure to accommodate additional students and meet current building codes.

The three different scenarios presented to the committee and town officials Wednesday night by architect Jim Barrett outlined two different renovation options as well as cost estimates for a new building on the existing site. Barrett's Power Point presentation is provided as the above PDF file.

One of the major obstacles faced with renovating the existing structure is that the building doesn't currently have grade level access. "It's like a big raised ranch," said Ward. "You have to go either a half level up or down. In order to be accessible and to meet code, exits must be at grade level," he said.

Option A would create grade level access to the school's existing basement, and would require digging out approximately 6 feet in front of the school, at a total cost ranging from $42 to $47 million, Ward said.

Creating access to the existing main level, under Option B, would require raising the grade level. That option would leave the basement just for storage and mechanical use, and would cost between $43 and $49 million according to the architect's estimates.

Both renovation options would necessitate the use of a "farm of modulars," Ward said, to serve as classroom space for the approximately two years it would take to complete the project. Those costs are included in the estimates.

A completely new 86,877 square foot facility is estimated to cost between $41 and $45 million, include the cost of eventually demolishing the existing structure. The students could remain in the old building throughout the construction, and that area would be separated by fencing, said Ward.

Depending on the ultimate level of reimbursement by the state and the option chosen, West Hartford's share would range from $8 to $21 million.

The process of considering this makeover began with an announcement at the Oct. 2, 2012 Board of Education meeting that legislation had been passed allowing eligible construction costs at eight qualified "Diversity Schools," including Charter Oak, to be reimbursed by the state at a rate of 80 percent.

School construction costs incurred by towns are typically reimbursed by the state at rates of 10 to 79 percent, with school projects in West Hartford typically receiving reimbursement at a 40 percent rate.

The reimbursement of 80 percent would apply only to "eligible" costs, said Ward, and those are dictated by state regulations which dictate a standard square footage for a school with a given population. Ward said the standards specify approximately 70,000, but the proposals are for larger buildings because they include cafeteria and auditorium space.

A Diversity School is defined as "a school in which the percentage of minority students varies from the average minority population for the district by plus or minus 25 percent." Charter Oak Principal Mary Thompson said in December that the school population is currently 80 percent minority.

Charter Oak was constructed in 1929, and the existing building contains asbestos. Sand was used as insulation and is still in place between walls and ceilings. All parts of the building will have to be brought up to code, including compliance with the ADA, if a renovation is undertaken.

The ultimate goal of creating an updated Charter Oak facility is to bring the ratio of minority to non-minority students at the school more in line with town averages, which can be achieved by attracting more magnet students from other parts of West Hartford. That would necessitate increasing the student bod from the current 320 students to as many as 560, resulting in the need for a larger building.

The committee was formed to provide input to the Board of Education, and information presented Wednesday will be used to assist in preparation of the Capital Improvement Plan.

"There's still lots of discussion to be had at this time," said Ward. The Town Council will make the final decision as part of the normal process of considering the budget, which is proposed in March and approved the fourth Tuesday in April.

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