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Tension Rises as Deadline to Decide Chalk Hill's Future Draws Closer

Discussion of Chalk Hill led to some heated exchanges Monday night.

Editor's Note: Supt. of Schools James Agostine has said he would not recommend moving alternative education to Chalk Hill without a three year commitment from the town to keep the building open.

 

As the June 12 deadline for First Selectman Steve Vavrek to present a viable plan justifying keeping Chalk Hill open beyond Labor Day draws near, tensions are running high. Many parents and public officials want to use the former school as a community center, but unless uses in the building can generate enough revenue to break even with the costs of keeping it open, Chalk Hill will be "mothballed".

During the Town Council meeting Monday night, Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin pointed out that Vavrek had not attended a meeting organized by a group of volunteers trying to keep the building open, before questioning him on the status.

"I wasn't at that meeting," Vavrek said. "Not being a sanctioned town committee, I don't have to follow through with that. I can't give an update because I wasn't there."

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Martin said she was just asking for the status from the town side.

"We budgeted $150,000 to mothball the school and that's where we are," Vavrek replied.

When the town gets a tenant who can pay rent, Vavrek said the situation will be looked at it again. He added that the volunteers are "doing a great job."

Martin asked, "Is there anything you've done in the past 10 months?"

"We budgeted $150,000 to mothball the school and that's where we are," Vavrek replied once again.

Vavrek has spoken to several potential suitors, including the YMCA and Bridgeport and Danbury hospitals while trying to find a tenant who can compliment revenue made from community and Parks & Recreation programs.

The building currently houses the Monroe Early Learning Center (a private daycare) and Parks & Recreation Department offices. The Monroe Volunteer Emergency Medical Service hosts training courses at Chalk Hill and hopes to make the building its headquarters one day.

The first selectman will present a financial plan for Chalk Hill to the Capital Infrastructure Facility Asset Planning Subcommittee (CIFAP) on June 12.

But if the numbers are not there to break even, Vavrek said it would be unfair to burden taxpayers with the added costs of keeping the building open.

"As a town, we're trying to assure the citizens if the building is open, it will be the right move for the taxpayers," Vavrek had said.

Any uses for Chalk Hill would also need Planning & Zoning Commission approval. The building is in a residential and farming zone.

'Not on the Same Page'

Kelly Plunkett and Jennifer Aguilar, who are heading up a grassroots effort to keep Chalk Hill open, told the council that two Friday Teen Nights there were successful.

The women have also been working with Dawn Ryan, director of the Monroe Early Learning Center and a town resident, in compiling a spreadsheet of local businesses willing to teach courses at Chalk Hill that can generate revenue.

Plunkett said an expansion of the Early Learning Center could bring in $20,000, Studio On the Move could make $9,000 and that Supt. of Schools James Agostine said he would ask the Board of Education to move alternative education to Chalk Hill for another $17,000.

However, she said it is unfair to expect a group of volunteers to come up with a business plan.

"We're not on the same page as the administration as far as making keeping it open our goal," Plunkett said.

During the last Teen Night, Plunkett said her husband spoke to Vavrek who told him he is talking to other towns about mothballing a building and re-opening it years later.

She also questioned financial estimates on the cost to keep Chalk Hill open. For instance, it cost the Board of Education $98,560 to heat it when it was being used as a school in 2010-11, but the town is estimating it would cost $176,600 if it's kept open in 2012-13. Light, power and water cost $123,581 in 2010-11 and the town estimates it would be $156,844 in 2012-13.

"Someone needs to push back and ask for greater detail," Plunkett said of the numbers.

She asked the council if the town is also considering the Parks & Recreation revenue that would be lost if Chalk Hill closes.

Doing it Right

Town Councilman Frank Lieto said, "I grew up in this town. I think a community center at Chalk Hill would be fabulous."

But Lieto said it is a "monumental decision" that the town has to make, requiring the approval of numerous boards, ensuring the building is code compliant and has the proper insurance etc. The town also has to make sure what type of use goes in there does not create a "slippery slope", he added.

"I would urge the town not to make a rushed decision, not to go out and get a lot of businesses just to make the numbers work. I'm concerned with the overall plan and the viability of the plan."

However, Lieto said he did not mean to discredit the work of the volunteers and he hopes it proves helpful.

"I want to see it be done right," he said. "If it takes a little more time to do it right, I'm fine with it. I think it's way bigger than the numbers. The use is important to me. Planning & Zoning input is important to me. Although we all agree it could have been done a long time ago."

'Blame, Blame, Blame'

Martin disagreed there is a "rush" to decide what to do with Chalk Hill.

"This is 10 plus months in the making," she said. "There was no rush. The problem is all we're hearing is a concerned citizen group trying to find answers. The administration has had over a year. Why hasn't it been on the Planning & Zoning agenda?"

Martin asked Vavrek to explain the differences in the financial numbers from 2010-11 and projections for 2012-13.

"My finance department works hard on an antiquated system," Vavrek said to Martin. "I hope you won't disparage my finance department."

He said the numbers changed a lot during the budget season.

"The numbers they put out, I back," Vavrek said of the Finance Department. "If I don't, we have a problem with our Finance Department."

Martin said, "I adore our Finance Department. They are working hard under [difficult] conditions."

Of the suitors who visited Chalk Hill, Vavrek said there was no firm commitment. He also said that Agostine had not told him he would ask the school board to move alternative education there.

"Other towns have mothballed a building for a year or two and came forward with a plan," he said. "If we have to mothball it, we have to mothball it, but to sit here and blame, blame, blame. That doesn't move us forward."

Vavrek said anyone serving on town boards could have pushed for action on planning for Chalk Hill's future since it had closed as a school, so it is wrong for anyone to point fingers at him.

As to why no one said anything, Martin said, "We started a budget session with you, Mr. Vavrek, telling us Chalk Hill would be open, then you told us weeks before it would be closed."

"It was days," Vavrek said. "The numbers were changing that quickly."

"Even better," Martin replied.

"We're going to do this right," Vavrek said. "I can't tell the people of Monroe I've got this plan to keep Chalk Hill open without the numbers."

Jethro May 15, 2012 at 01:17 PM
I am concerned about the poor leadership of this town!
Donna Gail May 15, 2012 at 01:35 PM
It's a joke that Vavrek kept acting like he was backing his Finance Dept. No one was questioning the Finance Dept. They were wondering about Vavrek's lack of action on this issue.
Bill Bittar (Editor) May 15, 2012 at 02:07 PM
Alt. Ed. would bring in an estimated $17k not $117k. My fault. I made the edit.
QWERTY May 15, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Wasn't the finance department disparaged when it failed to bill over $100K to select Monroe residents for city water installation?
Anne May 15, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Wow, Mr. Vavrek. That's some impressive show of leadership you're putting on.
Steve Kirsch May 15, 2012 at 04:43 PM
QWERTY, Finance Dept does not do tax liens and billing. Lets just stick to the Chalk Hill issue.
Ride the lightning May 15, 2012 at 05:07 PM
It's too bad the town is crippled by poor planning and poor leadership. Chalk Hill is an asset to the community.
Carolyn May 15, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Sounds like Vavrek had already decided 10 months ago to mothball and that is what he intends to do. So glad he is on top of things and moving things forward. He is just one sound bite after another.
Jethro May 15, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Their is a lack of direction, poor planning and no vision being put forth. The first selectman seems preoccupied with pleasing the local yokels. I don't see this town moving forward. We have a selectman only listening to people who want to move our town backwards. I think he is easily manipulated by the local yokels who insist that Monroe is still a farming community.
Designated Hitter May 15, 2012 at 07:27 PM
If financially viable, my hope is to keep Chalk Hill open. But will Mr. Vavrek have a plan on June 12th? According to him, that appears unlikely. "We budgeted $150,000 to mothball the school and that's where we are," Vavrek replied once again. He won't even attend the meetings spearheaded by a VOLUNTEER effort b/c he doesn't "have to follow through with that". I hope I'm wrong, that he has done his due diligence and has put in the honest and necessary effort to make a prudent decision (open or close). Otherwise, there goes $150,000, and we'll never know what might have been.
Sheila D May 15, 2012 at 08:24 PM
I have one word for this citizen's committee. 'RUN'! Run quickly, as it is obvious from this article and previous ones that your commitment to this project far outweighs the commitment of the First Selectman. The town took over the building and all of its expenses as of July 1, 2011 with not one penny being put into the town budget for the '11-'12 fiscal year. Here we are going into '12-'13 fiscal year with the same building that the BoE gave notice about TWO years ago, and still there is no plan. If he hasn't formed a formal committee now, what makes anyone think he will create a committee and develop a plan after it is closed? The articles will die down, the committee will disband, and the community will drive by a forgotten building. I for one would rather see it stay open past Labor Day with a plan being formulated (but not finalized), that attempts to recoup costs by pursuing tenants/renters/programs, etc. than having the building close. It's ridiculous that this administration had willing and able volunteers right at his doorstep and they were not leveraged. Mr. Vavrek missed a huge opportunity to make himself look good at the expense of this committee's work and he couldn't even see past his short-sightedness to realize that.
Jethro May 15, 2012 at 09:21 PM
I guess the first selectman wants to add to the record breaking amount of closed buildings in town.
Walt May 15, 2012 at 09:56 PM
While I agree with you that monroe is no longer only a farming community, what exactly do you think that monroe IS? In all seriousness, I don't think that monroe has much of an identity or can be labeled as one thing or another, but what would you label this burg as, bedroom community, landlocked bunch of houses, commercial free zone? Just curious
Wolfe May 15, 2012 at 10:24 PM
The town can actually EARN money by keeping Chalk Hill open, but the town council and Steve Vavrek don't want to realize that. There is a gymnasium----how about charging residents $10 per season ($40/year) for use of it? The field in the back can be used for adult softball, football, soccer and paintball games----all for fees. The gym can also be used to show movies twice a month (two times a day on two days of the week). Music classes can be taught there---for a fee. EMS pays for itself----and is necessary. Good God, folks in the town government---use your minds!!
frustated at republicans May 15, 2012 at 11:34 PM
Vavrek continues to be political patsy. He is a politician and that is all he will ever be. No progress in this Town due to Republican leadership! Hope we don't get another hurricane!!! Please Monroe - vote him out and give him a broom to fly with hovey!
Alex May 16, 2012 at 02:48 AM
Well I would hope the fields could be used regardless if the building is closed, especially if there is a league interested in using it. Aside from that, you really think those other ideas will earn money? If things didn't pan out, it would end up costing the tax payers more money in the end.
Geezer May 16, 2012 at 12:24 PM
It seems like Mr Vavrek has his own plans for Chalk Hill as he displays little interest in what others propose. I suspect he wants to make it a community center eventually. If he lets it sit idle for a couple of years until the economy gets better and taxes are less of an issue, he can reopen it without kicking out a lot of tenants. I'm not convinced that his actions are a result of his leadership but rather the way he goes about his own hidden agendas. And creating a community center down the road without a lot of disruption would be a feather in his cap especially around election time.
GregB May 16, 2012 at 09:11 PM
That sounds like a grreat idea. Maybe you can rename it Fantasyland and run for mayor. Nobody needs to pay for the use of fields when there is already a Wolf Park in Monroe. Nobody is going to pay to see a movie in a gymnasium when they go drive 10 minutes to Trumbull for air-conditioned, stadium seating, and 6.1 THX surround sound that will knock your socks off. Nobody. What you are proposing is more of a charity than a business. And the EMS- Really? Ambulances whizzing up and down a school campus driveway all day long with sirens blaring? This crazy idea would be a major distraction to the learning environment and a liability to the town. Am I wrong?
jon watson May 16, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Curious but has anyone identified any community that turned a closed school into a money making assest? I can think of a lot of town that closed schools without all this humbuggery going on.
Donna Gail May 17, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Jon, I think some of us would like to LEARN from the mistakes of the other communities who have tried to go back & resurrect buildings that were now too far gone to use again. Do we want to tear down Chalk Hill? I don't. I believe it's a good thing that people want to make use of the building or at least keep the discussion going for now. Vavrek just seems to have a done-deal attitude about it.
Christine E. May 17, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Ridgefield has been in the business of closing and re-opening schools for decades. I saw nothing but effective money-making use of these buildings. They re-opened a school about 6 years ago, and now they're in discussions for a possible elementary school closure, again, for 2014. Per last weeks article, I thought Vavrek was supposed to meet with Ridgefield FS Rudy Marconi to get some insight...did that ever happen? I'd like a follow up on that...I need to see some proactiveness going on here...
Joe May 19, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Have to agree with GregB here. Newtown has movies in Edmond town hall and it was sparsely attended many years ago when we went. These ideas sound great and I applaud the efforts of many people but the fact remains theat chalk Hill, like any building, is costly to maintain and operate. It does't generate and real estate taxes for the town. When you consider all this unfortunately from purely a business perspective there is little reason to keep Chalk Hill as a town building. On another article here on the Patch I agree that the town should consider moving Monroe El to Chalk Hill and selling Monroe El. That would be a more marketable piece of real estate.

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