Madison Debates Four-part $85 Million School Project

MADISON — School Superintendent Craig Cooke presented plans for an $85 million building project for the school district that will go to the town in a referendum in late 2021 or early 2022. 

The project includes four parts: constructing a new pre-kindergarten to fifth grade elementary school, closing Jeffrey and Ryerson Elementary Schools and the Town Campus Learning Center, converting Brown Intermediate School into a kindergarten to fifth grade school and renovating Polson Middle School. Completion of the project is aimed for 2025. 

Cooke said in a presentation to the Board of Education on Tuesday night that the disctrict expected to receive $10 million in reimbursement from the state, reducing the total cost for Madison taxpayers to $75 million. If the town decides not to build a new school and instead renovates the existing buildings, Cooke said, the cost could reach $100 million. 

The new elementary school would serve 600 students and include a 6,000-square-foot gymnasium, which Cooke said could be used for community events.

He also estimated that the district could save between $30,000 and $100,000 in annual electrical costs and would reduce its transportation expenditures. Cooke said the district did not expect to save money on staffing. 

The town is considering two sites for the new school. One is a plot of land owned by the town on Green Hill Road in front of Polson Middle School. The construction would require moving the softball and field hockey fields and demolishing Jeffrey Elementary. The second site, along Mungertown Road, is larger, and would not require demolishing Jeffery or disturbing the sports field. But that site has not yet been purchased, and utilities would pose an additional expense.

Bill McMinn, facilities director at Madison Public Schools, said that it wasn’t practical to keep making repairs on the older elementary school buildings. He said that Jeffrey was built in the 1950s and, although it has been upgraded over the years, the school still has its original boiler and the roof needs to be replaced. Ryerson was built in the 1960s and has never been renovated with the exception of its boilers. 

McMinn said that replacing the ventilation, addressing the heating and adding in air conditioning at the schools would be a “significant” cost. He predicted that the heating, electric and other systems in the buildings would “fail within the next five to 10 years if we don’t do something.” 

Renovations at Brown would include converting five classrooms into four kindergarten classrooms, upgrading the bathrooms and security, creating an outdoor classroom and replacing furniture in the library. Because Brown used to be a middle school, Cooke said, it has amenities that are unusual for an elementary school, including a full-size gym, an auditorium and a large library. 

At Polson, said Cooke, the ventilation and electric system needs to be upgraded and the air conditioning needs to be expanded. 

In addition to the projects put to referendum, the town will need to spend $44 million on additional capital improvement projects through 2026. 

Debating the pros and cons

In a question and answer session during the meeting, Madison residents brought up concerns about the location of the new school building, traffic patterns and potential changes to property values. 

Charles Lehberger, a town resident, said he thought the schools should be more spread out, and that clustering three buildings together could cause congestion and lower property values in the area. He also suggested taking advantage of CARES money to renovate the current buildings, rather than constructing a new school.

Other residents spoke in favor of the project, acknowledging the age of the buildings and the need for a new space. Resident Christina Morris said she believed that having air conditioning in the schools would be important for security, given that it would prevent the need to open doors and windows. 

Judith Hession Friedman, a member of the Board of Finance, said that the old school buildings were “a huge turnoff” to people considering moving into town. 

Cooke also said that the district was projecting an increase in enrollment beginning next year, when the students who were homeschooled or transferred to private schools during the pandemic are expected to return to the district. According to those projections, Cooke said that the district expected an increase of about 120 students in grades kindergarten to third grade  and 80 students in grades four and five over the next 10 years. 

First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons urged the board to move forward with the decision making process, noting that the schools are the town’s largest capital expenditure. Lyons said that the town has put together a facilities committee to decide what will be done with the properties that the old buildings were located on. 

“We can’t make any major strategic decisions in this town without figuring out the school system plan,” she said. 

The town is required to hold a referendum before it can move forward with any plan.

The majority of the board leaned toward holding a referendum in February or in the spring, explaining that they wanted more time to find answers to the questions raised and reach out more to the public. 

Board member Katie Stein urged holding the referendum in December. She said that state reimbursements were at an all-time high, and that the board had already waited long enough. 

“The longer we wait, the more likelihood we will have an issue, like a roof or a boiler or something else that goes wrong,” said Stein.    

If approved, the project would go out to bid in 2023, and is expected to be completed in 2025.

Latest from Emilia Otte