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Latimer Lane renovation before voters May 4

By Ted Glanzer

Staff Writer

SIMSBURY – It’s gotten less attention than the Meadowood property controversy, but the proposed $37 million Latimer Lane Elementary School renovation is also up for a vote at the townwide referendum May 4.

With exploding enrollment coupled with an already aging building, Latimer Lane Principal Michael Luzietti says the renovations to the school are needed now more than ever.

“It’s a 58 year old school that looks like it’s 58 years old,” Luzietti said in a telephone interview.

Among the issues at the K-6 school include the need for improved security at the front entrance; undersized core spaces, including a media center that’s the smallest in the town schools even though it has the second-largest student population; a cafeteria unable to accommodate more than one grade level at a time, meaning lunch waves run from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; crowded classrooms and offices, and areas that are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Luzietti said.

Luzietti said with projected enrollment at 460 – up from 371 recently – it’s only barely hyperbole to say the school building is bursting at the seams.

“Weatogue is absolutely exploding,” Luzietti said. “Some of those big huge projects all landed on the Avon/Simsbury line just on [the Simsbury] side of it. We have a couple of those new apartment spots that have landed us 30 to 40 kids. … Our smallest group next year will be our sixth-grade class, which is under 50 kids. Then we’re chasing that with a group of 70 [in sixth grade next year]. So, all of a sudden you’re having a swing of 20 to 30 to 40 kids from grade level to grade level.”

The growth in enrollment isn’t just over one year, Luzietti said, which has meant school officials have gotten extremely creative in how to use space to accommodate programming. But, Luzietti said, school officials are running out of ways to make the building work.

“In the past 5 years we’ve added three classes over the summer due to enrollment where we’re hiring teachers in August and redoing class lists.

“One year we had to take away a computer lab to add a classroom. Another year we had to consolidate an occupational therapy room. … Another year we had to take away the professional development room because, at the end of the day, you need spaces for kids. We worked really creatively to make sure we could continue and provide supports for all of our kids to meet all of their needs, while having classroom spaces but we’re at that tipping point where there’s nowhere left to pull space from.”

And it’s not just in one area of the school, where programming is less scheduled in a vacuum is more choreographed like a 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. dance.

Take, for example, the cafeteria, where the small size only enables one grade level at a time to be served.

That means seven lunch waves run from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s not ideal,” Luzietti said. “It needs to be rectified. It’s not best practices. The fact you have to have seven lunch waves becomes a major driver in your schedule of the building. The schedule of the building ultimately impacts how your instructional minutes break out where they fall across the day.”

The need for office space doesn’t just mean for the main office. Currently, several educators at Latimer Lane share office space.

“My social worker and my speech and language therapist are both [part-time] people,” he said. “They have to share an office, which then dictates their schedules. The smallest of things can have a big ripple versus having dedicated spaces for each different staff member, where you have the freedom to create a schedule that works for the building and not just a schedule that works specifically for the space.”

There’s the music room that has to be shared by two different staff members, which means scheduling is done on availability rather than the needs or shifting interests of the students, Luzietti said.

There are areas where the building is out of compliance with the ADA – notably with the stairwell in the middle of the building, Luzietti said. Currently, people who are in wheelchairs or have difficulty walking to travel a Rube Goldbergian route to get around the stairs issue, Luzietti said.

The project also calls for a modified pickup and drop off area outside as well as new windows for the building.

All of it, Luzietti said, is necessary.

“It impacts quality of education, it impacts real estate values on that end of town,” he said. “So much of this work has to be done anyway. And once you start doing some things, you have to do the other things anyway. It’s more responsible than piecemeal ramps and windows and roofs and spaces and libraries. You get to a tipping point. You get the opportunity to do it and to do it once.”

The total cost of the project is $37 million, with Simsbury picking up $25.7 million of the tab. Because the project is “renovate as new” (meaning a certain percentage of the building space is being renovated), it is eligible for state reimbursement for the remainder of the cost.

When the finance board voted to move the proposal to the referendum, there was a question as to whether the project was fully developed. Specifically, one finance board member questioned why there were no detailed architectural renderings of what the project will look like.

Luzietti said it’s typical for projects such as these to have general renderings (like the current one from Tecton) the more detailed plans will be drawn up if and when the project is approved by voters.

“This is consistent with what we did at Simsbury High School 20 years ago and at Tariffville years ago, which is to identify the need, work with them to find the budget line and then after that you get the detailed drawings,” Luzietti said. “But it’s hard because people want to see if you are paying for $25 million, they want to see what it look like. But that detail comes later.”

What Tecton has done, Luzietti said, is give a middle-of-the-road estimate on the cost of the project. It’s not the “Cadillac” of projects, but it’s also “not the 1993 Geo Prism” of projects, either, he said.

Luzietti said whether residents choose to vote for or against the project, his hope is they make an informed decision.

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