SALEM - As school and town officials gathered to discuss spending a proposed $16 million on school renovations next year, many agreed that declining enrollments could lead to the closing of one elementary school within the coming five years.
On Thursday evening, members of the Salem Municipal Budget Committee met publicly at Salem High School to present, discuss and make preliminary votes on some of the school district's warrant articles for 2013.
Several committee members questioned the cost of items proposed for Haigh Elementary School, which is targeted for what school officials describe as "modest improvements" in the coming fiscal year.
However, that school might need to be closed in five years if enrollment numbers continue dropping, town and school officials said. Budget Committee member Robert Bryant said, "the building isn't going away unless we take it down," and stressed that renovating the school would still be necessary if the district plans to lease the building or use it for other purposes.
"We might not need it set up as classrooms, but we may need it for another purpose," Selectmen Stephen Campbell said. "So having a plan for what we're going to do is going to matter to voters."
Campbell added that he "doesn't feel this is a wise investment since we don't know what the future might bring."
"I'm all in favor of the improvements (at Haigh School)," Budget Committee Chairman Russell Frydryck said, "because we don't know for sure if the school is going to close."
"This is the minimum required to make this building safe," School Board Chair Pamela Berry added.
"At this time, we don't know how long this will be used as a school: It might be 25 years, or it might be three," Superintendent Michael Delahanty said. "But meanwhile, the children attending this school have the right to the same safety features as those at our other schools."
According to Delahanty, articles 2 and 3 include funds for "comprehensive renovations" to Soule and Fisk elementary schools as well as more modest improvements to Haigh Elementary School; Article 3 also extends those renovations to include upgrades to the heating systems and removal of asbestos at all three buildings.
Delahanty said discussions on closing Haigh School are "premature at this time" since there are no definite plans to act on.
Phase I of the district-wide school renovations project, which encompassed improvements at Barron, Lancaster and North Salem schools, was completed in early fall 2011. In the process, the district eliminated six temporary classroom structures, a move that has since saved Salem thousands of dollars in lease costs. At that time, new security doors were installed inside those three schools' gymnasium entrances, a feature that allows various community groups to use the school gyms outside of regular school hours while keeping other areas of the schools locked and secured.
In March 2010, voters approved School Warrant Article 2, which detailed plans to renovate all of the district's schools in the subsequent years.
"We also added new buzzer-entry systems in those schools," Delahanty said.
Among the proposed repairs under Article 2 is $362,682 in bonded improvements for Haigh Elementary School. That would include the addition of a new fire protection sprinkler system, a replacement for a section of the roof, upgraded lighting and a new security system.
Another $805,000 is proposed for HVAC improvements at Haigh School under Article 3.
Delahanty said total costs would be "of a broader scope" at Soule and Fisk schools, though more detailed estimates would be available in time for next week's public hearing.
Summer renovations would begin in June, should the warrants pass, with the goal being the completion of all projects by the time school starts in fall 2014. The deadline for citizens to submit petitions for school warrant articles is Jan. 8. A public hearing and final vote on the warrants will take place at Salem Town Hall on Jan. 10. Salem's School Deliberative Session is on Feb. 7.
- - - - - - - -April Guilmet may be reached at AGuilmet@newstote.com.