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Baldwin school officials seek input on school upgrades

Superintendent presents ‘Innovation 2020’


The Baldwin School District is seeking feedback from the public about proposed renovations at the high school, middle school and elementary schools before a bond vote in the spring.

Based on feedback from Community Input Night in 2016, as well as a state-mandated Building Conditions Survey conducted in 2015, school officials developed renderings of proposed projects intended to improve and enhance the district’s facilities. Schools Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi presented them and preliminary plans, titled Innovation 2020, at a Nov. 13 Board of Education meeting.

More than 100 people took part in Community Input Night, Camhi said, and shared their thoughts on what they would like to see next, including improved facilities for music and art, air conditioning, upgraded elementary cafeteria spaces, rehearsal rooms and practice space for the orchestra, and an updated auditorium.

The early renderings for the high school reflected the requests, including roof and window replacements, a new entrance that would potentially include a security vestibule, gymnasium improvements, locker room renovations, a new media center that could replace the library, and a new auditorium as part of a Fine and Performing Arts Center that would have 1,500 seats rather than the 500 in the existing one.

Camhi also presented preliminary renderings of a new high school culinary arts center, a new high school outdoor athletic complex and an elementary school “innovatrium,” or an open-air contemporary space intended for innovative learning such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programs and robotics.

District parent Melissa Watts asked if Baldwin’s budget would cover the need to hire more teachers to supplement the new culinary arts center, but Camhi said new sections would not be added. “We would be modernizing what we already have,” she said, adding that the district would see savings if it kept students at home rather than send them to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services for classes.

“These are the things we heard from the community,” Camhi said. “There is nothing set in stone at this point. Before we go forward with this Innovation 2020 proposal for the community, we are really looking for the community to give us feedback.”

School officials said the public would have from now until Dec. 8 to provide feedback via ThoughtExchange, a crowdsourcing platform, to which a link can be found on the district’s website at bit.ly/2Xp1W8A.

After Dec. 8, Baldwin Board of Education trustees and administrators will review feedback, and the capital investment plan will be adjusted. The plan’s final version will be presented at future meetings, school officials said, and a referendum will take place on March 18.

Parents who attended the board meeting inquired about the timeline of the construction process as well as the cost. If the community votes “yes,” the process would start on March 19, Camhi said.

“It is a long process. It would probably take a year and a half before we break ground on anything,” Camhi said, adding that the district would need to receive approval from the State Education Department. Although the finalized proposals have not yet been presented, Camhi encouraged residents to urge people to vote in the March referendum.

“It is in line with the direction the district is moving,” Camhi said. “People refer to us as a progressive district, and so this is really sort of the next phase in something that has already been happening.”

Camhi said there was not currently a price tag on the initiative because officials did not yet know what the final version would look like. But the projects would be paid for using the anticipated Smart Schools Bond Act funds — which the district is still waiting to receive — reserves and a bond.

District parent Kathy Englehart asked how much is available in the reserves and if the district would need to pay back the Smart Schools Bond funds. Dr. James Robinson, the assistant superintendent of business, said there is about $11 million in the reserves, and Camhi said the district would not have to pay back the Smart Schools funds. Baldwin schools were allocated $2.6 million in the funds, which would go toward qualifying projects such as security improvements.

“Are there plans to do anything other than ThoughtExchange to get community input?” asked Joel Press, a former school board trustee. Camhi said information would be mailed to homes and that there would be presentations at PTA meetings and, potentially, the Baldwin Civic Association.

“My concern is that, all this is great stuff, and people are going to say, ‘I want this and I want that,’ and it comes out and it’s $250 million, and then everyone says, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want all of that, maybe can we talk about shaving things down,’” Press said, adding that the timeline is short. “It doesn’t sound to me like there will be opportunity for that.”

Board Trustee Mary Jo O’Hagan said there would be time for discussions like that. “This is the information gathering phase, and then, depending on what we see as a result of that, the appetite of the community for certain projects, then we will re-imagine the package,” O’Hagan said. “And then we will begin to put together a package that we feel reflects the needs and wants of the community.”

Ronda Mesidor, the Lenox Elementary School PTA co-president, said Dec. 8 was a tight deadline. “I just think that the Dec. 8 date is kind of a quick turn-around,” she said. “What if the public has questions like we had this evening? How will those questions get answered?”

But Camhi explained that there would be many opportunities after Dec. 8 at which members of the public would be able to share their thoughts and concerns, including during future community meetings.