The estimated costs for renovating and expanding Holland Hill Elementary School in Fairfield have grown from $9 million to $21 million since planning began in 2015.
During a December meeting of the Holland Hill Building Committee, which is overseeing the project, chairman Tom Quinn acknowledged some “sticker shock” regarding the increased costs.
The committee also acknowledged that the school was being built to accommodate 504 students, even though the highest estimate of enrollment provided by a consultant group was 442 for the 2025-26 school year.
But a town watchdog group called Fairfield Taxpayer published a lengthy critique of the project on January 8 making the case that the project needs to be curtailed in light of the increased costs and fiscal problems at the state level which have resulted in decreased education and school construction funding to towns.
Bud Morten, co-founder of Fairfield Taxpayer, says the project should be scaled back in anticipation of cuts by the state for school construction grants. “It’s likely we will not get any state reimbursement construction funding at all.”
Morton also points out that 602 of the Fairfield school system’s 5,040 K-5 seats are empty and the town should consider redistricting rather than expanding. “Particularly, since the town will have to redistrict anyhow to solve a longstanding racial imbalance problem in one of its schools.”
A consultant company hired by the building committee projected that Fairfield K-5 enrollment would continue to decline through 2020 but then increase over the following five years. Even with the projected increase the town’s school enrollment would remain below current levels.
Fairfield Taxpayer said these projections were “arbitrary,” citing previous consultants whose projections of an increase in school enrollment were wrong and argue that millions of dollars will be spent to add more seats to a school that is already below capacity.
The dispute is similar to a conflict in Wilton over the renovations to the Miller-Driscoll School. The cost of the project ballooned from $3 million to $50 million. This led to the formation of a citizen’s group called Sensible Wilton, which actively tried to curtail the project.
Sensible Wilton’s arguments were similar to Fairfield Taxpayer’s: declining enrollment meant expansion of the school was not necessary and the costs were inflated.
Sensible Wilton ultimately filed suit to force a public meeting and a second vote on the project. However, the group eventually gave up on the suit because construction was already underway.
But this is not the first time school building project costs have soared for Fairfield. In 2015, what started as $120,000 project to build an enclosed walkway at Osborn Hill School ballooned to over $500,000.
Morten says part of the problem with the high construction costs is the prevailing wage law in Connecticut, which mandates how much a worker must be paid to work on a public site and adds to construction costs. For example, based on prevailing wage, the town of Fairfield must pay the equivalent of $99,000 per year for “common” or “general” laborers.
“If we’re not going to get construction grants, perhaps we shouldn’t be subject to prevailing wage,” Morten suggested.
The state of Connecticut offers grants to towns for renovation and construction of schools that range from 10 to 80 percent of the costs. Last year the state bonded $562 million for school construction costs.
However, state budget deficits and growing debt service payments mean the state is reducing financial aide to towns for school construction. In late December Gov. Dannel Malloy announced a $50 million reduction in education and construction funding. The cuts primarily fell on wealthy towns like Fairfield and Wilton.
“The new economic reality does not appear to have penetrated the psyche of the board of education,” Morten said in reference to Malloy’s 2016 state of the state speech which announced budget cuts and layoffs.
“Based on their unwillingness to scale back school expansion plans, they are insensitive to the growing fiscal pressures on Fairfield taxpayers.”
Holland Hill Building Committee Chairman Tom Quinn did not return our call for comment.