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New school daze

Last modified: 8/27/2012 12:00:00 AM

Like it was choreographed, each person, regardless of age, assumed the same position as they walked through the door to the amphitheater at Mill Brook School during yesterday's open house.

Young, old, parent, grandparent, neighbor or future student of the school, they all tipped their heads back, stuck their hands on their hips, and dropped their jaws.

Floating above them, three skylights filtering the sun through multicolored plastic panes.

Teachers and staff have been in the new school since Aug. 1, and neighbors and new students got an early peek last week. But yesterday, the entire community was invited to tour Mill Brook and two other new Concord elementary schools, Christa McAuliffe School downtown and Abbot-Downing School on South Street, the culmination of a decade-long conversation about reducing operating costs and creating equitable educational opportunities across the district.

When they open for class tomorrow, the district will complete a move from eight elementary schools to five.

''It's so exciting,'' said Barbara Weese of Concord, watching her grandson run through the school's hallways for the first time after the official ribbon cutting kicked off the

day's festivities at the three sites.

''The windows, the circles, the light, the imagination - a lot of thought went into this school, and it's so exciting to see it for the children,'' Weese said.

A few hours later, the most exciting part of the opening ceremony at Abbot-Downing was the arrival of local officials via a working Concord Coach, pulled by a team of horses.

Children and adults stood breathless at the sight and clambered down the hill in front of the school before a small group climbed aboard for a ride down the block.

There was no promise of an antique coach for the McAuliffe school ribbon-cutting, but the downtown event drew the largest crowd of the day. About 200 people squinted at the reclaimed granite arch from the old Kimball school above the local officials making remarks.

Concord District Superintendent Chris Rath called for all current and former school board members to stand with her at the front of the crowd, praising their vision and focus on the values of children, families and education.

In her remarks, school board President Kass Ardinger praised Rath and the Concord community as a whole.

As cities and towns around the state face the same looming issues of aging facilities and declining enrollments, Concord gathered the political will to invest in three new schools from unlikely places: playgrounds, coffee shops, bleachers and neighborhood sidewalks.

''Neighbors talked to neighbors. . . . This came from the powerful glue of our community,'' she said.

The buildings are ''easily adaptable for educational purposes no living person has even envisioned yet,'' she said. ''They will provide an equitable educational program to all children in the city no matter where they live.''

'Good planning'

And, according to literature provided at each site by the school district, that equitable educational program will come at a tax increase of about $180 total over the next three years for the average taxpayer, with the rest of the construction bond being paid back with debt payments at or below the current levels.

The three buildings cost $53.2 million to build, $1.8 million less than the $55 million bond sold in 2010, and $8.8 million less than the original budget of $62 million. The payments will be offset by money accumulated and saved over years of low debt payments at the beginning of the decade.

''Cost didn't enter my mind at all,'' said Norman St. Hilaire, a Concord resident whose son and grandchildren also live in the city. ''The younger generations will need this, and we need to think about them. If we didn't do this now, the generations to follow would have to do it, and it would be even costlier.''

Jack Watt, a retired salesman, said he's not sure he buys the district's pitch just yet.

His own children are grown and have moved out of town but are considering moving into Concord, he said. They're specifically looking to move into a neighborhood served by one of the new schools, for his two grandchildren.

Leaning against lockers in the hallway of the Christa McAuliffe School, he raised his eyebrows and said he was impressed with his first view of the three new buildings but is reserving judgment on the project until he sees his tax bill.

''That's good planning,'' he said. ''If it works, it's very smart planning.''

Gary and Carol Sobelson's three daughters have also grown and left Concord, but they stopped by the McAuliffe building site during construction to mourn the old Kimball school, said Gary Sobelson, who dug an old Kimball and Dewey school T-shirt out of the closet just for the ribbon-cutting occasion.

''It's a sad thing. They're lamenting what's gone, but they're also looking in amazement at what's here,'' he said.

''They talk about having classes in the basement surrounded by heating pipes, having gyms on the third floor that were barely functional,'' he said. ''This was very much needed. . . . I have had great confidence in people like Kass Ardinger and Chris Rath. Their interest in the kids and in the community is great. I think they carried out a project that enhances the entire community.''

Terry and Polly Shumaker moved to Concord from Bow four years ago, when conversations about building new elementary schools were still divisive. They never worried about the affect of the project on their taxes, they said.

Longtime family friends of the McAuliffes - they even took some credit for inspiring the McAuliffe family's move to New Hampshire from Virginia many years ago - said the school district's investment reflects well on Christa's memory.

''She'd be thrilled to see this. Absolutely thrilled,'' Polly Shumaker said.

''I think education is always worth it,'' Terry Shumaker said. ''You're investing in the future. As Christa said, 'I touch the future, I teach.' '''


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