Stamford adult ed program faces uncertain future
STAMFORD — The future of the Adult Education Center has become unclear after a deal to move the program to the Old Town Hall failed, partly because of an apparent lack of communication by the school district.
Stamford Public Schools has been leasing space for about two decades at Holy Name of Jesus Church for the programs.
However, Eva Zaleska, a bookkeeper for the Washington Boulevard parish, said the church had been trying to discuss a lease renewal with the district since early last fall, but Holy Name didn’t receive a response until earlier this month when the school board announced it was seeking to move the program to the Old Town Hall on Atlantic Street.
“We were caught by surprise,” she said Friday.
Board of Finance members cited that lack of communication as one of the reasons they voted against the proposed lease with the Old Town Hall last week.
Zaleska said Holy Name sent a letter to the district last Tuesday, offering to renew the lease under the same terms of the current agreement, which expires in June. However, Zaleska said she had not received a response as of Friday afternoon.
“I wish they could keep us in the loop,” Zaleska said.
Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Michael Fernandes would not dismiss a possible new agreement with the Old Town Hall Redevelopment Agency, the group that manages the historic downtown building for the city.
“We’re going to keep our options open at this point,” he said Friday.
The adult education program has been held at Holy Name and at Cloonan Middle School. District officials said consolidating the program into one location would save money and allow the district to expand the program and its partnerships with community organizations.
But critics say moving hundreds of students to the downtown facility would end up costing the school board more money because of potential renovations. They also pointed out that Holy Name has a large and free parking lot and just underwent renovations.
During a somewhat contentious meeting last Monday, the finance panel voted 3-3 on the lease proposal — falling short of the majority needed for approval.
Finance board vice chairwoman Mary Lou Rinaldi, who voted against the proposal, said she doesn’t believe the school board “acted in an honorable way” by keeping the church in the dark for too long.
Amy LiVolsi, an attorney for the Board of Education, said the church was informed in November, though it was not a written notice.
“The church has been a good landlord for many years and we think we’ve been a good tenant, but this simply isn’t the right fit anymore,” she told the finance panel.
Board of Finance member David Kooris said Holy Name was not treated fairly, but he said the move would create “a net positive” for taxpayers.
The total annual cost of running the adult education program at the two locations is about $220,000, according to the district. Rent, utilities and other facility expenses at Holy Name add up to about $182,000. At Cloonan, where most of the evening sessions are held, the district spends about $39,000 for custodians, police and overtime pay.
The failed lease proposal for the Old Town Hall called for $207,000 in annual rent, with utilities included.
Fernandes said more than 600 students are enrolled in the adult education program, but he noted the number of students in any one session is much smaller and changes during the school year. He assured students the district was working to find “an appropriate site” for the program.
“We’re confident we’re going to have a site,” Fernandes said.
The Adult Learning Center offers classes in English as a Second Language, citizenship, General Educational Development and other programs.
OTHRA, which runs the 1906 building through a complex financial arrangement, had been discussing the proposed lease with the school board since last fall — about the same time the agency announced it planned to evict its main tenant, the Stamford Innovation Center, citing years of unpaid rent.
The innovation center was expected to move out at the end of this month. Norwalk Community College has also been negotiating with OTHRA to lease space in the building.
OTHRA Chairman Tim Curtin did not return requests for comment.
Thomas Madden, the city’s director of economic development, said the agency is evaluating its options and hopes to make a decision in about two weeks. Madden said changes to the lease would be required if the two sides returned to the finance board for approval.
City Rep. John Zelinsky, one of the most vocal critics of the deal, said the move was unnecessary.
“There’s a saying, if it’s not broken, you don’t have to fix it,” he told the finance board.
Stamford resident Al Koproski told the finance board that trying to find a parking space downtown would be “a catastrophe.”
“To me, it’s a tragedy for the students,” he said.
LiVolsi said about 50 parking spaces would be sufficient since not all students would be in the building at the same time. The plan was to secure the spots in the nearby Bell Street garage.
Zaleska said church leaders planned to meet Saturday to discuss their next steps. She said the parish “is still open” to working with the district.
“We care about adult education. It’s part of our life,” Zaleska said. “We would be very happy to renew the contract.”
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