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As members of the Board of Selectmen (BOS) continue conversations with families from Our lady of Mercy (OLM) over the possible lease of Island Avenue Elementary as a new home for K-8 Catholic education in Madison, issues are starting to pop up. Questions surrounding timelines and terms need to be addressed and resolved, but unsurprisingly the big question on the table has to do with money.
At the BOS meeting on May 14, Selectman Bruce Wilson updated the board on the status of the discussions. Wilson and Selectman Al Goldberg were tasked with meeting members of the OLM group trying to save the school to discuss the feasibility of leasing Island Avenue.
Parents and families from OLM first came before the BOS on April 9 to discuss the potential of leasing Island Avenue School from the town once the Madison Public School District formally closes the school and turns the building over to the town. Closing Island is part of the Board of Education (BOE) response to declining enrollment and as of now the plan is to close the school in June 2019.
OLM, located at 149 Neck Road in town, is the main Catholic K-8 school serving Madison and Guilford since 1954. Over the past few years the school has been left in a state of flux following an announcement that the school’s lease would be terminated and then a more recent announcement early this year telling parents that the school building would close at the end of this academic year and the school be combined with St. Mary’s School in Branford.
Following the news of the imminent closure, some OLM families banded together to begin looking for ways to separate the school from the local parishes to form an independent Catholic school, and find a permanent home, ideally still in Madison.
At the BOS meeting on April 24, Goldberg said if the town wants to seriously consider this option, town officials and members of the OLM Strong Committee (the group working to keep a Catholic school in Madison) need to have some discussions to fully understand what is on the table.
At the May 14 meeting, Wilson said discussions to date had centered on liability and indemnification, timelines, and revenue among other details. Wilson said the town’s insurance carrier and the town attorney have looked at the details of leasing the building.
“We have not found anything that says, ‘No, we can’t do it’ yet, but that doesn’t mean that we will succeed in getting it done,” he said. “From our side, what we have requested of them is a demonstration that they have the financial resources to do this and they are fine-tuning their numbers.”
Wilson said because the school is looking at such a tight timeframe, the town has done its best to move quickly with its investigations. At this point, Wilson said the town is tentatively aiming for a town meeting in the second week of July at which residents could vote on a detailed lease of the building.
Since Island would not be available before fall 2019, part of the urgency has to do with the OLM community trying to secure a home in the interim year according to Wilson.
“My understanding is they have an agreement in concept with Christ Chapel in North Madison for a one-year occupation of their facility,” he said. “…They [Christ Chapel] are willing to house them for a year, but have a desire to know with certainty before they sign any agreement that the school has a place to go after a year.”
Defining a timeline is also important for town officials as they consider a possible lease.
First Selectman Tom Banisch said he has received some correspondence suggesting he does not support the potential lease of Island for this purpose. Banisch said he has been in contact with members of the OLM community for a long time and he is just trying to do what is best for the town.
“We are trying to make sure the town is treated fairly and is not losing any revenues or any opportunities or anything else that would be detrimental to the town while we are trying to help them,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to make a mistake and think we are going overboard to help where it is going to cost the town money, but I also don’t want anybody to think we are not doing everything we can to create an opportunity.
“I have made it clear to them I don’t think there is a long-term opportunity here, but they are looking for a bridge to get to the next place they need to go to and it might be a couple of years,” Banisch continued. I just want to be on the record as saying I don’t see this as letting them have Island Avenue School for 25 years, but if it helps them get to the next place they need to be, that is what I have represented all along.”
Fellow board members suggested that the town needs to be clear that whatever lease agreement the town might come to with this school group, it’s a short-term agreement.
“We have talked in a very general sense about what they might desire to do in the future,” said Wilson. “I think Al and I have been very clear that the horizon we are looking at is very, very short. We are not saying ‘No’ to anything in the future and we are certainly not saying ‘yes’ to anything in the future…They have mentioned an eventuality where they would ask to purchase the building. Our response is that can’t happen in 60 days so let’s not confuse the conversation with that.”
Questions and Concerns
Wilson and Goldberg have been meeting with representatives of the group trying to save OLM. At a meeting on May 9, the two parties discussed liability, potential capital needs, town revenue expectations, and where the BOE stands on a date to turn over the building to the town. Currently the BOE does not have a formal date set, but is investigating a feasible timeline for closing and vacating the building.
Wilson said the annual revenue range the town is currently looking at is anywhere from $320,000 to $520,000; that range will be narrowed down in the coming weeks. Additionally, Wilson said everyone needs to understand the potential capital improvements needed at Island if another school group was to move in and what affect that might have on the schedule.
“If, let’s say, school ends June 30, if they [the BOE] need 60 days to clear themselves out, which may not be an unreasonable period, that puts us into August 2019,” he said. “Is that enough time to move in? If they need 90 days, that puts us in September, so that is where the conversation gets interesting. What window would you guys need to move in and where it gets really interesting is back in the capital discussion. If there is a capital improvement that needs to happen is there a big enough window?”
OLM Prep (the new name for the proposed school) Board Member Vlad Coric said the school would likely have to find a creative solution, but that they would make it work.
“Remember, when you are homeless, you will move in under any circumstances,” he said. “You are not picky when you are homeless.”
Looking at the money, Goldberg noted that the school appears to have an opening cash balance of $1.3 million, but said the town is going to need assurances that money is real.
“At some point, we—the BOS and the public—are going to want to see the money,” he said. “We are not used to being in this particular business, but if at some point there are some endowment funds you will be drawing on, the public has got to see that. The last thing we want to do is get in a five-year lease and at the end of year two you guys run out.”
Coric said the numbers do not include the $5 million Rettich endowment. That endowment is now tied up in court and he said the school did not want to base its financials on a money source it can’t count on. However, Coric said the school is ready to show cash flows and pledge amounts.
“It’s a reasonable request and I would want the same thing if I was in your shoes,” he said of the financial requests. “This has to be a win for the town in bring in revenue and it has to be a win for us in keeping this school in town. We would like both sides to be happy.”
Discussions are expected to continue as both the town and OLM Prep look to answer questions around money and terms. Wilson said it’s important to ask some of the hard questions now so there are no surprises later.
“I think we are trying to be transparent in what our concerns are so that you have the opportunity to address them,” he said. “I’m doing my best to project what the concern of the taxpayer might be and certainly sustainability is right at the top.”
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