Landscape, safety fixes for MEMS back on the table

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MANCHESTER — The plan to address parking, playground and playing field space and pedestrian safety needs at Manchester Elementary Middle School is back, with a few new wrinkles in the plan, and new questions about how it might be funded, and who's paying for what.

Those improvements are estimated at $3.1 million, according to figures presented to the Manchester Select Board and the Taconic & Green Regional School District board in separate meetings on Tuesday night. Neither board took action on the plan.

The reasons for the project remain the same as the last time they were presented, two years ago: Improving safety for students by dead-ending Memorial Drive with a cul-de-sac for student drop-off and pickup, improving student recreation and sports facilities, and providing more parking spaces that can be used when school is out of session.

The timing of the project and the split of the overall cost remain variables.

Manchester Town Manager John O'Keefe suggested an estimated split of $1.76 million for the town and $1.37 million for the school district, with both figures driven by which portions of the project are town or school functions. (The costs were not estimated from detailed design drawings.)

The Taconic & Green Regional School District, meeting at Flood Brook School in Londonderry, discussed its estimated $1.37 million outlay and whether a board serving a large, diverse population should spend that much money on a single school.

Jeff Cleary said that every school in the district will eventually face an expensive project, whether it's a new roof or a safety issue.

"All of our kids are all of our kids and we all share the cost," Cleary said.

The safety of the kids was the overwhelming concern during the school board discussion. Jay Ouellette said he didn't think the board needed to worry where a sidewalk was going to be placed or other details of the plan. For him, the issue was safety.

"Tell me it's for kids' safety and I'll sign off on it," Ouellette said. "That's all I need to hear."

Another board member put it in more stark terms.

"It doesn't matter if it's MEMS, Dorset or what, if a kid gets hit, $1.3 million isn't going to matter," said Joe Hoffman, of Manchester.

From a safety perspective, school and town leaders have long agreed that eliminating the safety threat of children crossing Memorial Avenue is a priority. How to do that, and how to pay for it, have been the key stumbling blocks.

"I've looked at this a million different ways," O'Keefe told the Select Board. "You can't do anything in front of the school unless the road goes away."

Two years ago, the Manchester Select Board and the Manchester School Board held a rare joint meeting to discuss a similar plan, which also included building a new roadway around the perimeter of the field connecting Memorial Avenue to School Street. That plan lost momentum, however, as both boards realized that the potential Act 46 merger — since completed — might impact funding. Tuesday, O'Keefe laid out the updated plan, estimated costs, and the potential for the town to issue bonds for its share of the project.

The main points:

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- The cul-de-sac ending Memorial Avenue would allow students to access the field without having to cross Memorial Avenue. A new four-square court and basketball court would be built on the north end of the field.

- School buses would access a restricted bus-only area on the north side of the school from School Street for delivery and pick-up.

- The former basketball court would become parking for faculty during the day and for visitor use on nights and weekends.

- The town-owned lot behind Walgreens would be repaired and expanded slightly to allow for about 75 parking spaces. O'Keefe said there's room for about 60 cars there now, but random parking patterns and poor drainage lead to the space being underutilized.

- Two new athletic fields would be built behind the school, including the area of the current rear parking lot, for soccer and field hockey.

The previous version of the plan was criticized for removing green space for parking, and for the new road connecting Memorial Avenue and School Street. The new plan reduces the amount of green space that would be taken for the project, but retains the road.

T&G board members were receptive to the plan but had some questions about the amount of land the school would be giving up in order to reroute the road. Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Jackie Wilson told the board the school would be giving up about twice as much land as it would be gaining and the town would be adding parking.

"I've already had this discussion with John O'Keefe," Wilson said.

Hoffman told the board he was impressed with the current version of the plan. "This is the best laid-out plan we've seen to date," he said.

Wilson also said it was the best plan she had seen, and there were ways to narrow the expense on the school's side.

"We can do some things to improve safety, but some of the individual pieces, we can decide do we want this or do we not," she said.

The town's share would have to be bonded, and select board members asked about potential costs to taxpayers as well as the town's current debt load. At present, the town has about $11.85 million in bonded indebtedness, with $8.2 million of that sum allocated to the water department and being paid down by water system users. The town's share is next highest at $1.98 million (paid by taxes) followed by the sewer department at $1.65 million (paid by fees).

O'Keefe said he would consider folding in a number of smaller projects that have long been "kicked down the road" because they're too large to work into the budget, but too small to bond on their own. Those could include sidewalk repairs on Richville Road, Bonnet Street and Highland Avenue; removing overhead utility lines from historic Main Street downtown; and replacing the kiddie pool at Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park.

The T&G board made no decisions other than to enable Wilson to continue the negotiations and work out the details of a plan to be considered.

Darren Marcy reported on this story from Londonderry; Greg Sukiennik reported from

Manchester.


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