Residents out in force for Public Hearing on New Lebanon Plan
By Kristan Sveda
Passions ran high in the small gymnasium at New Lebanon School Tuesday night, when the Board of Education listened to the public weigh in on two proposals for a new school building there.
One thing was certain: Byram wants the best possible site plan for a safer, more attractive, and better equipped elementary school—one that will give New Lebanon what it needs to be a successful magnet school, solve overcrowding, and improve Byram’s downtown community. What residents couldn’t agree on, however, is how to achieve those goals.
After a brief summary of recent scenarios drawn up by architects from Peter Gisolfi Associates, a firm in Hastings-On-Hudson, N.Y., the public was allowed to share its thoughts with the Board of Education before it makes a decision on four proposed plans for the school campus.
Scheme C, which called for constructing a new building in a wooded area behind the current school, has already been rejected by the selectmen. Scheme A, a renovation and expansion of the existing building, has drawn little support. So board members will decide between scheme B and scheme D. Scheme B would involve building a new school in a different location on the Mead Avenue campus, make a common courtyard between the school and library, and create new playing fields for sports. Students would maintain their studies in the current building when construction of the new building begins nearby.
Scheme D calls for demolishing the existing school building and replacing it with a larger, probably two-story, one. The field behind the library would remain as is. There would be room for a proposed parking lot behind the new school. During the two-year construction period, students would be bussed to other elementary schools in the district or taught in modular classrooms.
A number of residents supported scheme D, saying it is most in keeping with the Byram Neighborhood Association Master Plan of 2006. Bob McKnight, vice chairman of the association, said the school has spent “much time in developing the educational specifications for New Lebanon” while little time appeared to have been devoted to “community specifications.” He noted that the 2006 master plan calls for enhancing Byram’s attractiveness with green space, conservation of woodlands, and improved safety. “D would meet the specifications,” McKnight said.
“We had a petition asking for new construction but to maintain a village green,” said Mary-Ann Zalman. Citing safety concerns for children, she said she is against any proposal that would unite the library and school as one campus, as B would do.
Back to B
But a majority of those who spoke Tuesday night asked the board to revisit scheme B. Parents strongly supported it, and many held up large yellow papers with the letter “B” printed on them each time someone spoke in favor of the scheme.
Diego Sanchez, PTA co-president, said the plan would meet the immediate needs of parents who have children in the schools, while providing necessary improvements for the school community’s future.
All schemes offered by the architects aim to solve the problems of overcrowding and racial imbalance. The school has a higher population of minority students (primarily Hispanic) than other elementary schools in the district, and the Connecticut Board of Education for Racial Imbalance is calling for a fix.
Many parents said scheme B would make the school more attractive as a magnet while providing improved playing fields for sports and eliminating the need for bussing children out of the community during construction. Bussing was a particular concern for many who spoke. Some parents said figuring out transportation to other schools in town during construction would be burdensome to families that don’t have cars. Others said being separated from their school community would put their children at a disadvantage academically and emotionally.
Andrea Voz said that a few years back, the school had to fight to keep the after-school program at New Lebanon instead of having kids bussed to the Boys and Girls Club. She said the school won because many parents said they did not have transportation to get to the Boys and Girls Club to pick up their children. “How will parents who don’t have transportation go 30 minutes away to schools across town?” she asked.
Voz said she has worked in the district for a long time, first at New Lebanon and now at Glenville School, and she doesn’t want New Lebanon to have to rebuild a sense of community after construction. “We used to have a big problem with parent involvement,” said Voz, noting that the gym was packed with parents for this week’s meeting—a complete turnaround. “We worked long and hard to bring our families together and receive recognition from the district.”
Everyone seemed to agree they want field space in Byram, but many parents said they want the new school campus to provide multiuse spaces for organized sports while some community members said they want to preserve the current grassy field for family play.
“We have this amazing opportunity to add to our playing fields,” said state Rep. Mike Bocchino (R-150), adding that he was speaking as a parent, not as a representative, that night.
“D is the status quo,” said Christine Marullo, a Byram resident for 40 years and alum of New Lebanon. She said scheme D—leaving the field behind the library as is—would not provide any enrichment to children. “It’s a field people use to walk their dogs.” Marullo said children need a field for sports in Byram: “We deserve better for our community.”
“Plan B does not have to be a divisive issue,” said parent Angela Matias. “We can come together as a community.” She said B can be reworked to address concerns the community has about preserving a village green and maintaining community character. “What we all want is what is best for Byram for decades to come,” she said.
The Board of Education will meet next on Tuesday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at Glenville School.