The former Outback Teen Center downtown is off the table at this point as a possible future home for an “alternative high school” program envisioned by the school district, the town’s highest elected official said Tuesday.
In order to maximize the value of the shuttered, centrally located building, New Canaan first must find out whether it can be rented or sold, according to First Selectman Kevin Moynihan.
“And in order to do that, you have to expose it to the market,” Moynihan told NewCanaanite.com following a full day’s worth of meetings on the fiscal year 2019 budget, which now moves to the Board of Finance.
Moynihan said the decision was informed by a committee of the Town Council.
Members of the Council’s Education Committee, and Moynihan himself, met Jan. 25 with a real estate expert who shared his view of the potential that the Outback building could be leased or sold.
“You have a unique asset,” Al Mirin, executive managing director of capital markets with Stamford-based Cushman & Wakefield, said during the meeting, held at Town Hall. “The question is: Is there a demand for your asset? I think there is.”
Councilmen present at that meeting included Penny Young, Tom Butterworth, Rich Townsend, Cristina A. Ross and John Engel.
While Town Council approval would be needed in order to enter into a formal transaction, such as a sale or lease agreement, that wouldn’t be required in order to list the former Outback on the market, officials said. Even so, Ross said, the question should go through a public hearing “so we know what is the public sentiment.”
According to Mirin, if New Canaan wanted to list the Outback, a completed transaction—for example, a sale—could be expected to be made within about nine months.
Townsend noted at the meeting that selling the building to a property that would land it back on the tax rolls “is a big deal.”
Young at one point turned to Moynihan to ask whether, because the Committee was discussing a real estate-related matter, the meeting itself was public (it is).
Addressing the entire group, Young said that New Canaan must understand what money the Outback could bring in through a sale or lease in order to compare it to the potential cost-savings of locating the proposed alternative high school there.
According to the school district, the alternative school program immediately would save about $123,000 by swallowing an existing afternoon program. That effectively would offset most of the costs required to run it—$185,000 for certified teaching staff (a general education teacher, special ed teacher and social worker) as well as one non-certified position at $29,000 (a teaching assistant).
The program is to serve an estimated six-plus New Canaan students facing specific health challenges such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders including bipolar illness, PTSD, medical issues that affect mental health or which make a full-day typical school setting difficult, eating disorders or substance abuse.
During a budget presentation before the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said that the district is “committed to the concept” of the alternative high school even if its precise location has not yet been determined.
Moynihan suggested during that meeting that New Canaan may try to “regionalize” such a program by partnering with neighboring Darien, realizing some cost-savings.
Luizzi responded that such discussions already are underway and that “there are pros and cons.”
“one is that you are still paying probably more than you would wind up paying developing your own program.”
Moynihan responded that “almost by definition, if you try to collaborate with another district or two districts that are having the same issues, it has to be to be a net savings.”
Luizzi noted that the alternative high school is “a program of choice” for the parents of students in it, so “we would want to work with the families” prior to placing students right for it in a Darien-based program.
Moynihan responded: “I don’t quite get the choice.”
He continued: “If Darien is able to provide an alternative high school environment that works and they started a little bit earlier than we have and we regionalize, so we have a regional program, why is it a matter of choice? That is the program for that particular type of student. I’m talking about legally regionalizing, so we have a combined [alternative high] school.”
Luizzi said the school district’s discussions are not involved “regionalization” as such but rather “opening seats” in a program to students from different systems.
“So my conversations with the superintendent over in Darien have been, ‘If the Board of Education were to agree, we may be able to provide X number of seats,’ and whatever that number was, and that would be for costs and it would be less than what some of the outplacements are. However, sometimes they are placements that the parents have unilaterially placed the child and then worked out mediated agreements with, so in that context it would have to be agreed by the families in the district that it was the right placement for them.”