RTM delays transferring building
Amid unanswered questions about whether the town should maintain control until needed improvements are completed, the Representative Town Meeting postponed a resolution to turn over the Board of Education building at 35 Leroy Ave. to the school district.
Dennis Maroney, chairman of the RTM Education Committee, said the committee voted 9-0 to recommend transferring control of the 19,000 square feet of the building in the former public library to the Board of Education despite disappiintinfg despite disappoint among members that problems at the building remained unresolved.
The Board of Education moved its central administrative offices into the building in April 2013 as part of a $7 million project that shifted them there to enable the town’s senior center to escape from a dilapidated building at 30 Edgerton St. into the former Board of Education offices at the Mather Community Center.
“The committee is disappointed that the town is transferring the building without it being in working condition,” Maroney said. “Having said this we believe the Board of Education is already taking on more responsibility to fix problems in the building.”
Joanne K. Hennessey, chairman of the Planning and Zoning and Housing committee, questioned how the 19,000 square foot total described in the resolution conflicts with earlier studies that described 24,000 square feet available in the building.
Members of the committee who voted against approving the resolution don’t know exactly how much of the total building space the Board of Education is using.
“(The) 19,000 square feet (figure) is a nice round number but we don’t actually know where it came from,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you what there actual square footage is and that’s an issue.”
Hennessey said giving the Board of Education control over projects to fix the building was problematic from a cost control standpoint and that maintaining town control of repairs and renovation projects would help town lawmakers better gauge spending on projects.
Planned development downtown could also potentially make 35 Leroy Ave. much more valuable for another use, Hennessey said, and asked whether the Board of Education could veto town proposals to relocated them elsewhere.
“We don’t know in the next five to 10 years who in this town will come up with a higher better use for the property so the town should maintain control,” she said.
Taking care of the building should not interfere with school leaders top priority of managing budgets for the town’s educational programs, pointing to the recent announcement that the Darien schools expect a $2.2 million gap in the special education budget, Hennessey said. The Board of Education only budgeted $7 million for the program in the 2015-2016 year, despite spending $8.4 million last year, she said.
“We would like the education people to focus on education and not building management,” Hennessey said. “…Why did the budget go down 16 percent and now it is going up three months later? These are things we’d like the Board of Education to focus on and not space.”
Town Attorney John Wayne Fox said he viewed the resolution as mostly a formality to make a clear cut recognition that the Board of Education is responsible for addressing the care and maintenance of the building as it is for all other school buildings.
State law also dictates local Board of Education must have control of schools and all properties used for educational purposes, Fox said. Transferring care for the building, including plowing, impacts the town’s responsibility in the case of lawsuits, Fox said.
Several legislators also said they were disappointed about the muddled status of a large community room used by the Board of Education for monthly meetings and other uses which they said should be made available for community events by the board.
In a letter from Darien Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner to be read to the RTM, RTM Moderator Sarah Seelye described his view of how the full 19,000 square feet of space allows the district to operate at a more effective level.
Brenner’s letter said the larger meeting room, in what was formerly a children’s room at the public library, is a crucial facility allowing the district to offer faculty development programs in a larger forum.
“We will accommodate requests by the town to use that room as long as it doesn’t conflict with scheduled board activities,” Brenner’s letter said.
Jim Cameron, an RTM delegate in the Fourth District, said he also had concerns about the lack of specifics about what areas the Board of Education wished to retain rights to use in the future and what he views as Brenner’s view of the larger meeting room’s availability to the public.
“He says he is willing to share, but it isn’t his to share. It’s supposed to be community space,” Cameron said. “I am going to vote no.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Elizabeth Hagerty Ross said on Tuesday she was surprised by the delay and said the Board of Education had taken control of addressing remaining shortcomings in the building after the renovation, including stop gap repairs to the roof and a $220,000 project to install a new baseboard heating system in the building.
A heating system originally installed in the renovated building resulted in excessive heat and cold at varying times during the winter of 2014.
“We work collaboratively with the town on any building we have care, control, and custody of and I’m surprised there was a delay,” she said. “…If there are questions I’m sure the committee chairs will come to the Board of Education to get them answered.”
In response to the issue of whether the large meeting room belonged to the Board of Education, Hagerty Ross said it was part of the space occupied by the board though it was available to the town when it was free.
“It is ours but it is available to the community if there is a need for it,” Hagerty Ross said. “It is used for three days every November for polling and we’ve had various RTM committees come there and meet.”
A decision on the proposed transfer was delayed until the RTM’s next business meeting in January.