MADISON — The town’s Board of Education voted to approve a proposed $89 million school renewal plan on Tuesday after hearing residents’ concerns about tax increases, future enrollment numbers and increased traffic in the area.
During a Board of Education meeting that doubled as a public forum, current and former parents in the district, as well as community residents, listened in-person and on Zoom as Superintendent Craig Cooke presented an overview of the plan. The plan is expected to go to a referendum on February 15, 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. The plan also includes the demolition of the Ryerson Elementary School building, which will be converted back into a field.
The new elementary school is projected to cost about $61 million — $46.6 million for construction, $2.7 million for furniture, technology and playground equipment and $6.6 million for expenses and fees for designers and consultants in specific areas. An additional $5.2 million will be set aside as contingency funds.
If the referendum is approved, the building will be constructed on a parcel of land on Mungertown Road. The district plans to purchase the property for $1.3 million, which would come from a private appropriation made by the Board of Selectmen. The new school would be able to accommodate 600 students and include a 6,000 square foot gymnasium.
The school officials expect to receive just under $10 million in state reimbursement on the new elementary school, leaving the district responsible for $51.3 million.
The cost of converting Brown Intermediate into a pre-K through 5 school is estimated at $6.5 million, according to a budget document. The project would turn some of the existing classrooms into a kindergarten wing and build an outdoor classroom.
Upgrades to Polson Middle School, which include replacing the ventilation system, expanding the air conditioning to other parts of the school, upgrading the electrical system and work on the auditorium, are expected to cost about $21.5 million.
The current plan was developed in the wake of a failed 2017 referendum to build a new elementary school. After voters rejected the plan, the Board agreed to a $100 million capital improvement plan for the district’s four schools. In 2018, a working group made up of members of the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance came together to discuss other options for the schools. After considering over 50 options, the working group recommended the current $89 million project.
Even after the $89 million plan, the district still expects to spend $50 million on capital improvements to the athletic fields and on projects at Brown, Polson and Daniel Hand High School.
If the referendum passes, the Board of Selectmen will appoint a building committee that will be responsible for overseeing the project. The new elementary school would be ready for use in 2025.
Increased taxes, increased costs
Much of the public discussion centered around a concern about the increase in taxes. According to Superintendent Craig Cooke, the $89 million project is expected to increase taxes by an annual average of $153 for every $100,000 of assessed value of a home over the next 25 years.
The increase is not evenly distributed over the next 25 years, and will be at its greatest between six and 10 years from the adoption of the project, when the taxes increase is $202 per $100,000 of assessed value.
One resident said he felt it was too much to ask voters to approve both an $89 million school renewal plan and the plan for the redevelopment of the Academy School into a community center.
Resident Janet Nicolini said that she was concerned about the increasing operational costs of the schools, despite there being a decrease in enrollment. She said she believed the student to teacher ratio in Madison — recorded as 11:1 on Niche — was too small, and pushed back against the idea that the project would be “staffing neutral.”
“With these costs going up, we just can’t sustain that as a town,” she said. “When I was in school in the New York City school system, we had 25 kids in a class, and no paraprofessionals … How much is too much? When do we start saying, what’s best for the taxpayers in Madison?”
Cooke said he expected the project to save the town some costs in electricity. But, Cooke said that he didn’t anticipate many cost savings in transportation, and that he expected the district to need the same staffing levels. He also said the district would need to add an administrator in order to have a principal and an assistant principal at each of the elementary school buildings.
Over or under enrollment
Residents also questioned the enrollment numbers that the district presented.
Projections from the firm Malone and McBroom estimate that K-3 enrollment will increase from 602 students in 2020-21 to about 720 students in 2030. They estimate that grades four and five enrollment would increase from 319 students last year to 400 students by 2030.
Madison resident Rick Fearon said he felt that the enrollment projections showed a “very rosy picture” of the number of students that Madison would have in the next 10 years. He pointed out that Madison had been decreasing in enrollment over the past decade.
“One might argue, irrespective of birth rates, a tax rate that has become sort of stifling has maybe led to this decline,” said Fearon.
He questioned the idea of “burdening our children” with the tax increases that the project would require.
Other residents were concerned about what would happen if the enrollment numbers fell short, and the district ended up with more students than expected. Nancy Harris said that she had seen many families with young children moving in from New York City during the pandemic.
“I would be concerned that we are going to move forward with a project that we’re going to outgrow,” said Harris.
Warrington said that the new elementary school would be built with enough flexibility to accommodate an additional four or six classrooms if they were needed.
Members of the public also proposed different configurations for future school buildings and ideas for the district.
Resident Matt Gordon proposed the idea of building a new school where the current Jeffrey Elementary School is located. McMin said the working group had rejected this idea because the Jeffrey lot was too small to hold the school being proposed.
Cooke said that another problem with placing a new school where the current Jeffrey or Ryerson schools are located is that there is no space to place the students that are attending those schools while the construction would be going on.
Fearon brought up the idea of combining Madison and Guilford into a single district, saying that he believed this would be a smart idea for two districts experiencing declining enrollment.
Cooke said he wasn’t aware of any discussions to combine with any of the neighboring districts. He said that he didn’t believe combining districts would provide significant cost savings.
“The biggest cost of education is really the teacher in the classroom with the students,” said Cooke. “And that would still maintain.”
Two other residents expressed concern about having all the schools grouped in one area of the town. One resident said he was concerned about what increased traffic would mean for the safety and walkability of the neighborhood.
Cooke said that having the Middle School and the High School near one another had actually been a “huge asset” since middle schoolers could take classes at the high school and they were able to share some staffing. Board Chair Seth Klaskin added that having the schools closer together made them easier to secure from a safety perspective, since it would limit the number of locations where police would need to travel.
Resident Laura Francis asked about the possibility of making the new elementary school into a K-2 school and having Brown be a school for grades 3-5.
Klaskin said that he was originally in support of that idea, until he heard from parents from the north part of Madison, who he said had many concerns, including potentially long bus rides that elementary-school age children would have to take in order to arrive at school.
Klaskin, who was appointed to the Board of Education after member Katie Stein resigned her position,
served on the board twelve years previously. He also served on the tri-board working group for the school renewal project. He was elected as chair at an organizational meeting held before the forum.
Selectman Bruce Wilson asked what the Board of Education planned to do with the Jeffrey and Ryerson properties, and if they planned to turn the properties over to the town. Cooke said that there would need to be discussions between the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen, but there were not currently any intended uses for the properties.
“The Right Way to Go”
Klaskin said that the alternative to the school renewal project was investing $100 million dollars in an ongoing battle against aging buildings.
“We have to train ourselves, I think, as a matter of perspective to not only look at the tax impact, but also look at the value and the quality that our plan would deliver.”
Bill McMinn, director of Facilities for the Town of Madison, also emphasized the need for buildings of good quality. He said that when something older breaks, it takes longer to get the parts and to fix the problem.
Some residents also spoke in support of the project. Ryan McMillan pointed out that the kids, who do not get to vote on the plan, are the ones going to schools without air conditioning and using aged supplies and buildings.
Nick Conti, who has a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old, said he believed the plan was “the right way to go.”
“I say that as someone who doesn’t want my taxes to go up one nickel year over year,” said Conti. “I think this just enhances the desire for people to want to be here and to want to stay here.”
The plan will now have to go before the Board of Selectmen, Planning and Zoning and the Board of Finance. A special town meeting is scheduled for February 1.
Editor’s Note: CT Examiner previously reported the project costs at $85 million, the figure given at a presentation on the project in May, 2021. Cooke told CT Examiner on Thursday that the figure had increased since then to $89 million because of bonding costs and a “review of other areas.”