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Empty school? Towns look for ways to unload or reuse them

Surplus public school buildings can be an asset or a liability, depending on their location, condition and, oftentimes, the sentiments of neighbors and alumni.

But with a significant declining school-age population in eastern Connecticut, municipalities will likely find themselves with some empty schools over the next decade.

East Lyme is moving towards closing the Niantic Center School on West Main Street, and while officials said they have no specific plans for the property, they noted it should be marketable because of its location in the village commercial district. 

Other municipalities have already grappled with empty educational buildings.

In Gales Ferry, a former school is a successful small business incubator with a waiting list to get in; and along the Mystic River, two old schools have been converted, one on the Groton side to an assisted living facility, and another on the Stonington side to condominiums.

The old Borough School in Stonington Borough is luxury condominiums. In Noank, after a long, arduous process, it was decided to demolish the abandoned school there and convert the property to a community garden. Both Stonington and Groton have renovated old school buildings to administrative offices for educational personnel, while other properties, like the old William Seely School in Groton and the former Cohanzie School property in Waterford, are being eyed for development. 

Not far from Pfizer Inc., in the city of Groton, the one-time Eastern Point School is the location of LEARN's Marine Science Magnet School, after the property was leased to LEARN for $1 a year for 75 years, and then the old school was razed and the new school built.

Historically, old schools in New London have been retrofitted, one at the end of Montauk Avenue as office space, and another off Truman Street to house a vocational counseling and jobs training program. Several years ago, New London school officials decided they no longer needed the old Harbor School, but then, a year later, they reassessed their needs and reopened the Montauk Avenue building as the city's Early Childhood Center at Harbor School. And recently, New London educators relinquished responsibility and use of the Little Red Schoolhouse off Hawthorne Drive, passing it off to the city. 

In Connecticut, public school buildings are the property of local boards of education until they are no longer needed and a school board returns the property to its municipality.

"The towns own the structure and the property, but the control is with the boards of education," said longtime Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward. "They have use of the school as long as they want it, and when they're done, they say, 'Here's the key, be our guest.'"

Over about the past decade, Waterford has winnowed the number of its schools from five to three. The former Southwest School on Daniels Avenue is now home to the regional education service LEARN's Dual Language & Arts Magnet School. And the town has been talking with a developer about possible plans for the former Cohanzie School, where portions of the property have been demolished with a state grant.

Steward said that he attended Cohanzie as a youngster and that his father and his children did, too.

"I know some people are attached, but it's a building, and it's got a life span, and when that life span is over, well, that's the hard part of what we do," he said.

In Groton, which has closed four schools over the past decade (going from 14 to 10) and where there are plans to reconfigure more schools and end up eventually with just eight, Town Manager Mark Oefinger is well versed on the topic of handling surplus schools. His advice to other municipalities is to decide every building on its merits.

When the town's old Mystic Academy closed years ago, Oefinger said, a study group met for a long time before deciding there was no appropriate municipal reuse for the property. As part of that process, a new zoning regulation, aimed at repurposing institutional buildings in residential neighborhoods, was adopted. That led to the conversion of the old school building to an assisted living facility for the elderly and to the development of a portion of the property as a neighborhood park.

The town sold the building for about $27,000, Oefinger said, and now collects substantial annual taxes on it.

"Given the right conditions, you may want to give (a school) away," he said.

There was a similar community discussion when Noank School closed, and after several ideas were floated and abandoned, it was decided the old school would be razed and a community garden would be established there.

The old schools can be costly to maintain, officials said, and oftentimes contain asbestos and lead paint, and have leaky ceilings and windows and broken boilers.

Liability is also a concern, and the empty schools must be secured, officials said. In Waterford, Steward said, police had to step up patrols at the Cohanzie property when youngsters started breaking in to skateboard down the hallways. And New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city's risk manager is raising concerns about the Little Red Schoolhouse.

"We can't just let it sit vacant anymore," he said, adding it's a matter for the City Council to discuss, but it could be worth marketing because of its location near the Armory and its proximity to Interstate 95. 

The town of Groton leased the closed Colonel Ledyard School building to the city of Groton for $1 a year under a 75-year lease, but just last week, the city asked the town if it would take the deteriorating property back, after a resident filed a blight complaint citing its worsening conditioning. Under the lease agreement, the city is liable for upkeep, but now the city's mayor said the city is having second thoughts. 

A municipality will sometimes repurpose an old school for administrative offices and later realize that perhaps it wasn't the best idea, said Oefinger.

"These are old classrooms with one outlet in front and one in the back and an intercom on the wall. In some of these buildings, you can't even put in suspended ceilings, because the whole thing was designed to heat snow on the roof. ... Too often towns move into the space and then they have to do improvements after the fact," he said.

Groton's old William Seely School, which the town is finally selling to a developer, has housed municipal recreation programs for years, and it served as storage space for everything from props and decorations for the annual high school graduation party, to sets for a regional theater group, to voting machines and bicycles. 

Several towns have leased entire buildings or portions of school buildings to LEARN, the regional education service. And in Gales Ferry, several acres of the old elementary school property was sold for development of a CVS store, and the old school building was turned into a business incubator called Gales Ferry Landing.

Mark Bancroft, assistant to the town's mayor, has played an instrumental role in the project that allows at-home businesses to move into old classrooms for up to three years, grow their businesses, and then, hopefully, move to commercial space in town.

There is a waiting list for the incubator space, where tenants pay rents that are about half the going market rate, Bancroft said. To qualify, tenants must be establishing a new business or moving out of a home business.

It costs the town about $45,000 annually to operate and maintain the building, Bancroft said, and it collects about $72,000 in rents. Some of those additional funds have been used for building upgrades like carpeting, a new boiler, and asbestos abatement in the basement.

The financial returns are not huge, but the concept draws people to the Gales Ferry section and helps fledging local businesses, said Bancroft. The old gymnasium is also available for use by exercise groups like Zumba and Jazzercise, and it is open to others who need space for events or meetings. There's even a church that leases some space and worships there on weekends.

And in the off-season, the town's farmers market operates from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

"I'm very proud of it," said Bancroft. "If somebody gave me another big school, we could do another incubator, or apartments."

"There's no one size fits all," Oefinger said about surplus schools. "Every situation is different. I think you have to look at every school and make a decision." 


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