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Residents raise questions about committee's decisions

October 20, 2009
ALTON — The Alton School Board's Buildings and Grounds Committee found itself confronted during its Oct. 15 meeting with tough questions from a group of residents voicing concerns about its decision-making process.

Stating that a number of concerns had risen in her mind after reading recent press reports about the committee's decision to renovate and expand the Alton Central School and its interest in the Twombly property as a possible site for athletic fields, Barbara Howard asked which state statute requires an elementary school to have a minimum of 18 acres of land.

Superintendent Kathy Holt explained that the required minimum acreage is a standard imposed by the state Department of Education, and not a matter of state law.

Asked by Howard whether the committee had looked at the land behind Water Industries, Inc. on Route 28 as an alternative to the Twombly property, Holt replied that it had, and had determined that the site would be "inappropriate" for an elementary school.

Explaining that she did not want to see the Alton Central renovations turn into a repeat of what happened during the construction of Prospect Mountain High School, when she said the price tag kept rising as voters were asked to approve staffing and equipment expenses in addition to the initial construction costs, Howard suggested that the Twombly property might be seen as another "long-term burden" by a community that she felt was not in favor of higher taxes.

"Was this committee never told that doing nothing was an option?" she asked, adding that she works with a number of low-income people in the area who are "getting it from all sides."

Given the current state of the economy, she said, district officials should be looking for ways to save money, rather than spend it.

Stating her belief that the condition of the building should not dictate the quality of education students receive, Howard suggested that with the construction industry and the housing market at a virtual standstill due to the recession, the community might not outgrow Alton Central as quickly as school officials originally thought.

Stating that he agreed with Howard "100 percent," resident Steve Parker asked Holt whether the district had signed an agreement with the owner of the Twombly property.

Holt replied that the property is still available on the open market, and that the only agreement the district has with the owner is a document granting it access to the property for the purpose of conducting site evaluations.

Raising another issue that she said was a matter of great concern for her, Howard questioned the committee's motives for conducting much of its business in non-public session.

Parker (himself a former school board member) agreed, commenting that he felt the committee was taking the school away from the community by excluding the public from its decision-making process.

School Board Chairwoman Terri Noyes explained that the committee discusses all potential land transactions in non-public in order to protect local property owners who have come forward to offer land.

Holt added that under state law, the acquisition or sale of property cannot be discussed in public unless the property owner requests that the information be publicized.

With discussion turning to the question of whether or not the addition built in 1988 would accommodate a second floor, Buildings and Grounds Director Karl Ingoldsby explained that while the addition was designed with a second floor in mind, current building codes would prohibit the construction of a second floor today.

Holt added that the construction of a second floor would provide only enough room for four classrooms.

Commenting that, "you can put a second floor on anything," Noyes said no decisions had been made yet regarding the renovations.

"We've looked at so many different options," Ingoldsby added.

Parker said he recalled being told at the time the 1988 addition was built that it would house a total of 700 students with a second floor.

Committee Chairwoman Marilyn Dame replied that according to her recollection of events, the initial proposal was designed to accommodate 700 students, but the project was scaled down considerably after voters turned it down several times.

"The world has changed since then," committee member Pati True commented, stating her belief that it was "pointless" to re-visit the past, and that the community needed to move forward.

Addressing the belief of some residents that the construction of Prospect Mountain was intended as a solution to Alton Central's space issues, Noyes explained that district officials clearly stated at the time the high school was built that it "was not going to fix the problems here."

Alton Central's current student population, she said, outnumbers Prospect Mountain's by more than 100.

Soil test results announced

Holt reported at the close of last week's meeting that the results of a recent soil test conducted at the Twombly property by local septic engineer Tom Varney showed that the land would be capable of supporting a septic system for a 500-student school, should that need arise in the future.

Asked by Parker whether the test results were available to the public, she replied that the full report would be released if the school board decides to pursue the purchase of the property.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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