Town Council Members Mull Using ‘Outback’ Building To House Alternative High School Program

The superintendent of schools on Wednesday night presented a subcommittee of New Canaan’s legislative body with details of a proposal to create an “alternative high school” program for students with specific health challenges in New Canaan to be housed at the former Outback Teen Center behind Town Hall.

Dr. Bryan Luizzi and Assistant Superintendent of Pupil and Family Services Darlene Pianka outlined their vision for a program to replace New Canaan High School’s current Afternoon Instructional Program, or ‘AIP,’ which is held in the school’s media center.

AIP is currently only available to four to 10 upperclassmen at a time, while Luizzi’s proposal will potentially provide full- or half-day instruction for six to 12 students in grades 8-12 based on their educational and therapeutic needs, they told members of the Town Council’s Education Committee.

The idea of locating the alternative high school at Outback had been broached with a town committee in November and the program itself was presented to the Board of Education on Monday as part of the approximately $90.7 million proposed budget for New Canaan Public Schools next year.

Throughout Luizzi and Pianka’s presentation, Education Committee members Tom Butterworth, Rich Townsend, Joe Paladino and Christa Kenin raised questions about the potential costs of the program and the suitability of the Outback as the program’s physical site.

Butterworth suggested at the start of the meeting that the town should look at the proposal as a three-year deal subject to being renewed instead of one that would run indefinitely.

“It’s a little easier to wrap our arms around it if we don’t have to think of it as forever because it is a new idea, and there are so many issues, again, not with the program itself, but with other things,” he said.

“And because some of the numbers are a little soft and we don’t have a crystal ball to know exactly how many students are going to enroll in what year and how the whole thing is going to work. But we think we have good enough numbers to make a decision because what we’re seeing in alternative uses [for the Outback building] isn’t better than what we’re seeing for Board of Education use, but if we view it as a three-year decision, I think we’d be a little more comfortable.”

While Luizzi and Pianka detailed the advantages of holding the program at the Outback— including the ability to use the building as its original donors’ intended, its proximity to the downtown area, and its existing features that are ideal for educational use— the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee was asked to compare potential costs, savings and revenue associated with holding the program at the Outback with alternative uses for building. Committee co-chairs Amy Murphy Carroll and Penny Young presented their findings.

Along with the costs of housing the alternative high school program, the committee analyzed the potential costs of allowing a nonprofit organization to take over the building, moving the structure to another part of town (potentially to New Canaan High School), demolishing it to create additional parking spaces, selling it, leasing it or taking no action at all.

The biggest challenge of using the Outback, Butterworth pointed out, was that while the town now owns it, it had originally been built with private funds and is not ADA-compliant. The Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee estimates that it would cost about $550,000 to make the repairs necessary to become compliant.

Butterworth stressed that repairs would have to be made no matter who took over the building, unless it was demolished or sold. “It’s going to be painful no matter what we do,” he said.

In comparing upfront costs, annual utility costs, year one net income/savings, five-year net income/savings, and other factors, Carroll said that while each option had its pros and cons, the committee is drawn to the benefits of allowing the alternative high school program to occupy the building.

“The driving force for potentially expanding into this alternative high school is not the money—we’ve made that abundantly clear,” she said. “But one thing that’s pretty attractive is that it can be taken on and have a fiscally positive impact, which is great, and that’s even assuming the savings we have helps pick up the costs we would need to incur to keep the building and fix it. Some would say that maybe commercial [leasing] could have financial positives to the town as well, but it’s kind of exciting that this program not only can serve our kids so well, but it can also serve our taxpayers in terms of lowering the outyear cost in special [education] expenses.”

Carroll added that while the committee is clear that additional factors need to be considered before deciding, the option of taking no action at all is “not a free option.”

According to the committee’s analysis, doing nothing with the building would incur $25,000 in upfront costs and $14,000 in annual utility costs.

“It’s not fiscally prudent just to wait,” Carroll said.

Butterworth said that before the Town Council votes on the building’s use, further analysis is needed to determine whether costs to make the building ADA-compliant would fall on the town or the renter, if a commercial lease option was chosen.

Luizzi told the committee that if the town chose not to allow the alternative program to occupy the Outback, that he would continue to develop the program at another suitable location.

When asked whether having high school students with mental health issues taking classes in the downtown area might raise safety concerns among business owners, Luizzi said that merchants wouldn’t have anything to worry about.

“These are students that are having a hard time in a traditional academic program for a variety of different reasons,” he said. “You wouldn’t know these kids if you saw them. These are kids on the soccer fields… kids you normally see at the games, in the classrooms, and in the hallways.”

Pianka added that the program would have criteria in place to prevent students with substance abuse issues or other serious conditions from entering the program.

Butterworth also asked about Luizzi’s goal to have the program up and running by September, considering that there will be additional discussions coming. Luizzi said that while he’d like to have the program open by this fall, he doesn’t want to rush the town.

“The town needs to take the time that it needs to make this decision,” he said. “I think that if we do this—certainly for our planning purposes—the sooner the better, but we’re not looking to rush into anything beyond where people are comfortable to do that. I think once we get this going, it will thrive, and it’s going to become a fixture in that space… it’s going to be a mark of pride for the entire community.”

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