Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Future of Middletown Schools in the Balance: Common Council to Vote on New Middle School


One of the preliminary site plans for the proposed new
middle school.
It’s nothing more than an ironic coincidence that the City of Middletown is considering two major building projects at the same time.  A new middle school, and a boathouse on the riverfront.

While the decision about how to build the boathouse, and what to spend, is still several months off, the decision on the new school is imminent.

On Monday (June 5, 7PM, Council Chambers), the Common Council must decide whether to allow the middle school project to move forward.  If the vote is not taken in June, the city will miss the deadline that will allow it to apply for a grant that will pay for half of the school costs.

The proposal for the new school is for a building of 150,000 feet, the maximum allowed for middle schools in the state, if the state is to fund the building at the maximum rate. 

The total cost for the proposed middle school is $88 million.  The state grant would pay half that cost.  So the cost to the city is $44 million, which would be bonded, and have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The size and cost of the school is based on carefully-considered educational priorities, architectural projections and availability of building sites.

The new school will be a three-story building constructed on a plot of land on Hunting Hill Avenue, immediately West, and directly in front of the current building.  Sixth, seventh and eight grades would attend classes at the school.

The current school is sixty years old, and in very bad shape, with an ancient and inefficient heating system, no air conditioning, poor circulation, leaking roofs and overall crumbling infrastructure.

The building committee measured renovation against building new, and the slight savings in construction costs would be outweighed by the costs and inconvenience of temporary classrooms, school interruptions and retrofits on an already retrofitted school.

If the city misses the deadline, construction would be put off for at least another year.  Upcoming changes in state grants for school construction, and increases in construction costs would mean that the longer the construction is put off, the higher the costs for a smaller school.

Sources have indicated that some Common Council members would like to reduce the cost of the new school by $10 million.  This would impair the essential educational priorities of the middle school, and create a situation in which a maximum state grant would not apply.

Preliminary boathouse conceptual.
In a few months, another building committee will be reporting to the Common Council.  This committee has been considering the construction of a new boathouse on the site of the current boathouse.

In addition to the boathouse, and other rowing-related amenities, the building will include a banquet facility that the city plans to rent out to the public.

The first boathouse proposal was presented to the committee at a cost of $60 million to the city.  The committee sent architects back to the drawing board to consider alterations to the plan that would lower the cost.

Both the school and the boathouse have their merits.  But this is a moment at which the priorities of city political leaders will become clear.

The new middle school is an absolute necessity.  To delay construction will only cost the city more, and it will mean several more years of students attending a substandard, and perhaps dangerous, facility.

If we consider the new building a 40 year investment, which is fair, since the current building is 60 years old, then the annual amortized cost is just over a million dollars a year, for the hundreds of students who will be in attendance.

The boathouse can be the centerpiece for a revival of Middletown’s waterfront.  A new boathouse will be a destination for amateur rowers, and for school teams including Middletown High School, Wesleyan and other schools that have expressed interest.

Like many others, I opposed the inclusion of a banquet facility in the boathouse.  The city has argued that it needs the banquet facility to pay for the building, but the projections are optimistic, and without acre upon acre of parking, which would have a marring effect on the riverfront, it’s unlikely that event planners would look on the site favorably.

Even if the he current projected cost of the boathouse of is lowered by $10 million, it would still outpace the cost of a school, which would serve a far greater population of students and families.

There’s no argument that the single best economic development tool a city has is the quality of its schools.

If Middletown is to continue its renaissance and become a town to which families will happily relocate, a new middle school should be on the top of the priority list.



Anonymous said...

Having looked at the feasibility studies, it seems like the town is trying to find a problem where there isn't one. Everyone likes shiny new things, but at what point do we take a step back and evaluate what's really needed? Why not spend $40 million on the best damn teachers and academic curriculum we can get? Invest in arts and athletics programs. Give these children something that will stay with them for life.

Also, as the business and nonprofit communities are learning, the "open space" concept doesn't work for roughly half of the employees who are introverted and need personal/quiet space to focus and actually get work done. I imagine this will be an issue for children as well. I know that my academic success would have declined sharply if I were put into this new age learning environment. We're not all social animals. Collaboration has its limitations.

I don't have any kids, so the only skin I have in the game is being a tax payer in the city. I would much rather see my tax dollars spent on actual education.

Alex Rose said...

Honestly, I think both plans are disappointing.

Fully agree with you on the boat house, it reeks of another white elephant project that so many Connecticut cities have invested in (anyone hit up that Connecticut Convention Center recently? Or the revamped Civic Center for that matter).And, yeah, where is everyone going to park? Or are we expected to paddle up to our events.

I don't see a reason why we need to close a section of Hunting Hill and alter a park we've already paid to redo to wedge in a new building. Especially when we have so much open space and brownfield sites that need attention across the city.

If the city wants a big splashy building as a part of the riverfront revamp, why not take one of the ruined factory sites down on River Road and build there? What better way to tie a new neighborhood together than a first-rate school.

If we are really stuck with one of these two plans then, yeah, the school for sure. But, really? We can't do better?

Anonymous said...

I don't remember being told when we voted for the new high school that we'll need to build a new middle school, too. I thought the middle school was going to use the old high school. And by the way, Middletown's portion may only be half, but we taxpayers are who is paying for the other half, too. Don't count on the referendum passing. My social security doesn't go up when taxes go up. Does anyone else's?

Vincent Marotta said...

One last consideration. How much did the high school actually cost vs how much the proposal was?