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."
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."