The kickoff to Cheshire’s “budget season” came, as it traditionally does, with a presentation from Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan.
In asking for approximately $4 million in additional funds, Solan is presenting an ambitious proposal, especially given the Town Council’s penchant for keeping the spending belt tight in recent years. Solan will first make his case to the Board of Education and, eventually, to the Council for why these funds are necessary.
There’s a lot that goes into such a budget, and Solan and his staff spend months working on the details before the “big reveal” to the public. Yet, while the spending proposal deals with the immediate needs of the community, one couldn’t help but feel the specter of school modernization hovering over everything.
Yes, Solan is looking to replenish the District’s medical benefits fund, which takes up a large percentage of his current ask, but enrollment is playing a central role in this year’s proposal, as the additional positions being requested are in direct response to the larger-than-expected student population seen over the course of the last 12 months.
And, as Solan explained, those trends aren’t likely to reverse anytime soon.
In The Herald’s conversation with Solan this week, the majority of the focus was on COVID-19-related issues, as one would expect. The pandemic continues to impact the student experience, and the arrival of the omicron strain of COVID just heightened concerns. Yet, Solan touched on the issue of school modernization and laid out, in stark terms, what the community will likely face in the not-too-distant future if capacity concerns are not addressed.
Either Cheshire moves forward with its renovation/construction plans for school modernization, or it can expect to see trailers outside some school buildings for the foreseeable future.
As Solan sees it, the question is whether the town wants to spend for new or to keep spending to accommodate the old and outdated. Towards the end of this year, it’s expected that Cheshire residents will finally have a say in answering such questions.
Enrollment isn’t likely to go down anytime soon. As Andrew Martelli, BOE member and the Town’s Economic Development Coordinator, explained last week during a Planning Committee meeting, new developments are popping up all around Cheshire, with more, specifically in the north end, planned for the near future. Couple that with the recent trend of new families moving to Connecticut from places like New York and local homeowners taking advantage of high real estate prices and increased demand, the likelihood of even more students calling Cheshire home in the coming years just continues to increase.
Those projections are already becoming a reality, and Solan’s budget looks to address the immediate concerns. But it’s obvious that any delay in moving forward with school modernization will only exacerbate the situation.
As it stands, the District will be looking to accommodate a larger student body in the near future as, even if plans for new schools and increased capacity are approved by voters at referendum in November, the finished products will not be ready immediately. There’s a lot that will have to get done in between the project’s approval and the doors opening, and even if all construction were to go according to plan, it will likely be more than a year before students would be welcomed into their new homes.
So, as Cheshire begins to look at its budget, and as deliberations extend over the next several months, the elephant in the room will continue to be school modernization. And if voters ultimately decide to pass on the sweeping, expensive proposal put before them by local leaders, the result will have to be understood.
For now, however, the question becomes, how much of the requested $4 million will the BOE approve and ultimately get from the Council, and if cuts are made, where will they be made?