Danbury’s next school project could be a pre-K academy at Great Plain Elementary School

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DANBURY — After reviewing plans for its $164 million career academy, Danbury executives are planning to build an early years center at Great Plain Elementary School.

The 16 classrooms would cost between $27 million and $28 million and would be paid for with money allocated under the $208 million loan scheme which includes the careers academy.

With this center potentially opening for the 2025-26 school year, Danbury could free up the space it rents for early childhood classrooms due to lack of space in crowded elementary schools.

The project would house displaced preschool students primarily from Hayestown and Great Plain elementary schools, said Antonio Iadarola, the city’s superintendent and public works engineer. The two-story addition would be approximately 25,500 square feet and connect to Great Plain.

“It’s perfect because it’s actually adjacent to the cafeteria,” Iadarola said Thursday night when he gave the school board’s sites and facilities committee a first look at the proposal. “It provides a great cross-connection opportunity with the existing school, yet it is a distinct stand-alone pre-K academy.”

Earlier this month, Danbury City Council approved the $208 million borrowing plan for the academy and other educational improvements. But the council will meet again at 7:30 p.m. on Monday to discuss changing that order so that the projects are considered an obligation and a question on a future referendum. With the council’s approval on Monday, the package would go to a public hearing and then a referendum.

Future expansion needs

The early childhood center and career academy, which would serve approximately 1,400 middle and high school students from the former Cartus Corp. property, is intended to accommodate booming enrollment growth in the district of more than 12 000 students.

Danbury’s growth has baffled experts, exceeding forecasts and bucking statewide student population decline trends.

However, Danbury has commissioned another enrollment study to better predict growth over the next few years. The state requested the study as part of its review of an 80% reimbursement grant for revised career academy plans.

The hope is that the latest study will be more accurate than those done in 2019 and 2021, Superintendent Kevin Walston said.

“These numbers are not exactly the same,” he said. “Given the pandemic, the state has requested an updated study on the other side of the pandemic now.”

Anticipating continued growth, Danbury sees opportunities to expand school space on the Cartus property. For $57.2 million, Danbury plans to purchase 24 acres of the property for the 286,000 square foot academy and will receive another parcel of 6.4 acres.

The city has the “right of first refusal” to purchase another property between these two parcels where the Hologic, Inc. building is located. This company leaves Danbury. Another parcel nearby may be available from that venture, so the city could have access to 39 acres, Iadarola said.

This would give the schools a “strong presence on the west side of the city”, where much of Danbury’s growth has occurred, he said.

“We’ve always struggled with a limited area, a limited space,” Iadarola said. “We have maxed out most of our schools for additions, this is the first real opportunity to provide a campus that would give us the potential future expansion.”

Preschool area

Following a surprise 5.6% increase in enrollment in fall 2019, school and city officials discussed adding space to Great Plain, but the project was shelved for career academy. Danbury instead rented space in a church on Granville Avenue and opened an early childhood center there to make room for additional students coming to elementary schools. Danbury also leases space at Sacred Heart Church.

“But these leases, which last about four, five years, are very expensive for the board,” Iadarola said. “So one of the things that we thought we would do is actually develop a centralized standalone pre-k program.”

The early childhood center academy would be built on the site of the school’s former septic tank. The school was connected to the city’s sewer system around 2018 to allow for future expansion, Iadarola said.

The new space would support parking, with plans to add parking elsewhere on the property, he said.

Concerns about traffic in Great Plain were raised the last time officials discussed expansion there, said school board chairwoman Gladys Cooper.

“The parking lot is horrible there,” she said.

But Iadarola’s latest plans look better, she says.

“I think we might have to really sell it to the community there to make sure it gets through,” Cooper said.

Those kinds of logistics will be discussed, said Iadarola, who described the plans as a “rough concept.”

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.


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