When the first phase of school modernization was approved at referendum last November, to the tune of $166 million, local officials admitted that a lot was riding on the outcome of the project.
The price tag was eye-popping, but clearly a convincing case had been made by proponents of school modernization that, despite how many zeros were needed to get the job done, it was a job worth doing. Voters agreed and gave the first phase the green light, setting the stage for two new elementary schools to be built in Cheshire over the next several years.
But, as officials acknowledged, taking the long-debated project from an idea to a reality would be a painstaking process that the Town had to get right. If the project were plagued with delays and cost overruns, not only would it make moving forward with future phases of school modernization that much harder, but it would likely put any big-ticket capital projects at risk.
Planning remains in the early stages, but thus far the Town and, specifically, the Next Generation School Building Committee, appear to be taking their responsibilities very seriously. The group of volunteers responsible for ushering this project into reality have been meeting consistently throughout each month and, most recently, made their first big decision: the selection of an architectural firm. After significant deliberation, the choice was made to choose only one firm instead of two, so as to avoid any issues when it came to the continuity of the work on the two schools. It also came after members made numerous site visits to schools all across Connecticut — buildings that had been designed by the firms chosen as finalists for the Cheshire job.
Stepping foot inside these different schools, whether completed or just now under construction, allowed Committee members to see for themselves exactly what kind of bang the firms under consideration were likely to deliver for the local taxpayers’ buck. It also allowed for a review of the projects, to see if any significant complications had arisen in the design phase and, if so, what the solutions had been.
By meeting as often as they have — 15 times since the beginning of the year, including site visits — the Committee has allowed itself to be both methodical in their research and quick in their decision-making. Officials have estimated that it would take three years to complete work on the two schools, and one would imagine having a design firm working on the plans for the two buildings before Easter puts Cheshire in line with such a schedule, if not ahead.
But the most important part of this project will be oversight, which is why the Committee’s next decision — choosing an Owner’s Representative to serve as project manager — will be as or even more important than choosing an architect. This will be the person or firm responsible for making sure the promises made before the start of construction are met once shovels are in the ground. More than just “eyes on the ground,” an owner’s representative is an advocate for the Town’s interests, and their job can only be considered done and done well if the project is completed in the time and manner expected by Cheshire officials.
Making sure the person or firm hired is experienced with these sorts of big construction projects and has a track record of success will be vital to ensuring all of the community’s ducks are in a row before any dirt is kicked up or support beams are erected.
But as of right now, it appears those volunteering on the Building Committee understand the importance of their work and the stakes for getting it right. They’ve moved the process along here in 2023 and should be commended for the time they have and continue to dedicate.
More of it will be needed as the months, and years, go forward.