WESTMINSTER — A new building that would house an early childhood learning center and an office for the superintendent of schools has been proposed, with one possible location being land owned by Bellows Falls Union High School.
Funding for construction of the estimated $5 million building would come from the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union’s $20 million ESSER funds, but long-term maintenance would be the responsibility of the district’s taxpayers. ESSER, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, is part of the COVID-19 response funds.
Superintendent Andrew Haas told members of the BFUHS Board this week of the plan, which has received preliminary approval from the Agency of Education, which must sign off on the usage of ESSER funds. Haas said he was thinking he’d like the building to go on one of the high school’s fields.
Westminster School Board Chairwoman Cheryl Charles, who is on the district’s ESSER committee, said the proposed plan still has to undergo a lot of review and planning.
She said the early childhood learning center would include a daycare center, which would include care for infants and toddlers, in addition to pre-school students. Quality child care is in high demand, she said, and is important for the future learning of all children. The high school even has teachers that can’t return to work after maternity leave because they can’t find child care, she said.
Charles said the proposal was far from finished. “It’s a concept, it’s an idea,” she said Friday. “It’s an idea that is being explored.”
Charles said the new building would also save the annual rental costs for the current superintendent’s office, which is roughly $40,000 a year, and another $10,000 for heating and electricity, she said.
But one potential location received immediate criticism from Westminster director June Streeter, who said while she supports the concept of an superintendent’s office combined with an early childhood center, the new building should not go on already cleared and in-use fields.
Streeter said some land surrounding the high school could be logged to create a new location.
Two directors from Rockingham, which has the most students in the four-town union district, also criticized the plan, but for different reasons. Like Streeter, neither questioned the need for such a facility.
Director Jason Terry said both the high school and the Bellows Falls Middle School have a lot of excess space that could be converted to a superintendent’s office and the early childhood center. Terry said that since Rockingham paid more than 60 percent of the supervisory union’s budget, townspeople should be able to vote on the project since maintenance costs would fall largely on them.
Director Deborah Wright said that with all the vacant buildings in Bellows Falls, the supervisory union should look at one of those buildings rather than construct something new.
Wright had originally suggested that the town buy the old St. Charles School, which is where the supervisory union was located until 18 months ago, and extensively renovate it, but she later dropped that suggestion.
Most directors criticized the decision by former Superintendent Christopher Pratt to move the office to two buildings next to each other in Westminster Station, which costs the supervisory union about $50,000 a year in rent and utilities. Terry called the lease agreement “a disaster.”
Wright said that there was a lot of space available in both the Bellows Falls Middle School and the high school, and Terry pointed out the high school was designed and built back in 1970 for about double the number of students currently enrolled.
Wright said that by law a school supervisory union cannot own property, which had lead to the current lease arrangement. She said that before the move out of St. Charles, the school district explored some downtown Bellows Falls locations.
Charles and Rockingham School Board Chairwoman Priscilla Lambert both said a new building would be better for the small children, since the existing school buildings are designed with larger children in mind.
Currently, the district’s pre-school programs are held at Central Elementary in Bellows Falls and at Westminster Center School, Charles said.