REPORT AND COMMENTARY
|One of the preliminary site plans for the proposed new|
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.