Rundlett in review: Eight years of discussions about size, location and cost of a new middle school

The Concord School Board looks up at the two site plans for the Rundlett Middle School at the opening of the meeting on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. The board voted to build the new school on the Broken Ground School site.

The Concord School Board looks up at the two site plans for the Rundlett Middle School at the opening of the meeting on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. The board voted to build the new school on the Broken Ground School site.

Plans for a new Concord middle school to be built on raw land next to the Broken Ground and Mill Brook schools was chosen by members of the school board in a 6-3 vote Wednesday night.

Plans for a new Concord middle school to be built on raw land next to the Broken Ground and Mill Brook schools was chosen by members of the school board in a 6-3 vote Wednesday night.

Project Director Laura Wernick from HMFM explains the deficiencies of the present Rundlett Middle School that was built in 1957 during the presentation and tour of the building on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

Project Director Laura Wernick from HMFM explains the deficiencies of the present Rundlett Middle School that was built in 1957 during the presentation and tour of the building on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER


Monitor staff

Published: 03-02-2024 8:00 AM

Modified: 03-04-2024 9:15 AM

A petition asking the Concord School Board to revisit its decision to locate a new middle school on the East Side has garnered almost 800 signatures, yet the chance of another vote remains dim.

Few school board members have expressed a desire to reopen the debate, and even board members who favored the existing Rundlett site expressed concerns with the petition’s goal. Eight years into the discussion about a new school, they emphasized that forward momentum is now a priority.

“Attempting to overturn a vote made by the previous board would set a bad precedent,” said Liz Boucher, one of two newly elected school board members whom petition organizers hoped would rally to their cause for a re-do vote.

While Boucher said she would have favored rebuilding at Rundlett if she had been on the board at the time, she believes those who supported Broken Ground had legitimate reasons.

“I would hope — and I believe — the school board members who made that vote did so in good faith and for the betterment of their community,” Boucher said. To assume otherwise by revisiting the vote would be “disrespectful” to former board members and the constituents they were elected to represent.

Cara Meeker was vocally in favor of building the new school at Rundlett when the board voted in December. She still favors it, and would probably vote that way now if the board reopened the question, she said.

But, given that she does not believe the board as a whole is likely to decide differently in a re-vote, she is concerned that doubling back would pour salt in the wounds of those still upset by the 6-3 vote taken on Dec. 6.

The petition’s popularity is unsurprising, she said, and it demonstrates the work ahead of the board to ensure the new location disappointment doesn’t poison public buy-in on the project as a whole.

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“I want people to be excited about this project, I don’t want them to feel threatened by it,” Meeker said. She sees the main question before the board: “How do we regain trust and move forward?”

While the petition focuses on the location vote, its backers are asking the board to hit pause on the project to develop a lower cost estimate and to increase transparency. Both of those goals can be met without stalling the project’s progress, Meeker and Boucher said.

Moving ahead with designs, the board should be more open to those who have questions and concerns, Meeker said, ensuring that even those with reservations about the Broken Ground site are heard.

By establishing a committee and working groups with community membership, the board is opening the door for the public to firmly establish costs and finalize designs. At the outset of this defining phase, the Monitor created a timeline showing how the district reached this point in the process — and what key decisions are still to come.

Going forward, if residents have a vision and a budget in mind for the new school, Boucher said, they should get involved with the process.

“Nothing is set in stone,” she said. If petitioners want the board to go back to the drawing board, “We’re at the drawing board.”

Restarting the conversation

On a Tuesday night in June 2021, the rain hit the roof of Rundlett, drowning out Laura Wernick’s presentation. Wernick, the project director from HMFH Architects in Cambridge, was talking through repairs and renovations to the building at a community meeting.

This meeting was one of many that summer that began to re-engage Concord residents in a discussion about the future of Rundlett Middle School – a project that has been in conversation in the city since late 2016.

In April 2021, the school board revived the middle school building project after a hiatus. Years earlier, in July 2016, the district hired HMFH Architects, a firm based out of Cambridge Mass., to evaluate Rundlett’s current condition and consider the future needs of the building originally constructed in 1957. The capital facilities committee evaluated six applications and unanimously chose HMFH, which previously worked with the city on three elementary school projects.

From the beginning, visions for the project included a range of sizes and locations. Expanding the middle school to include a fifth grade was an option, as was a partnership with the YMCA. Location was undetermined, with sites owned by the district, like Rundlett or land by the Broken Ground and Mill Brook schools, weighed against potential purchases and a renovation of the current building.

In their initial feasibility study of the project, HMFH presented five options for the project, with costs ranging from $75.8 million for a new 6-8 option without a YMCA partnership to $107 million for a new 5-8 school that included the YMCA.

Renovations to Rundlett, estimated in 2017 to be more than $100 million, would mean sizeable upgrades – including to the gym, locker rooms and multipurpose space – while the construction of a new school would provide a blank canvas.

“The sprawling footprint, piecemeal additions and interior masonry walls will make a renovation very difficult,” the September 2017 report read.

In July 2019, the board unanimously voted to build a new school. This was its first formal decision defining the project’s scope.

Throughout 2020, the project fell out of board conversations, in part due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. Discussions were revived in April 2021, with funding approved to renew planning proposals with HMFH.

At the beginning of 2022, the board voted 5-4 to keep the new school grades 6 through 8, further refining the project scope.

The question of location still loomed large.

A place to rebuild

The Rundlett site had housed Concord’s middle school for decades, but construction could prove disruptive to the students and neighborhood.

The district already owned land at the Broken Ground, but also considered sites in Concord it could buy – including land near the Concord Monitor building on Monitor Drive, the Steeplegate Mall on Loudon Road and a parcel on Langdon Avenue in the South End.

In March of 2022, the district announced its intent to purchase open land on Clinton Street for $3.5 million — a 38-acre parcel owned by CenterPoint Church with proximity to Memorial Field and the high school. But the sale depended on approval from members of the church congregation.

With a purchase and sale agreement pending, the district applied for school building aid from the state which needed a cost estimate, even if as only a placeholder. It used $176 million for a new project on Clinton Street.

“When we went into the community and did the sessions, the result was getting numbers to get in line,” Business Administrator Jack Dunn said. “That was the whole purpose of that.”

The figure was based on an estimate HMFH presented in June and included many elements from public visioning sessions. The application pointed to Clinton Street because it was both the most likely and expensive option at the time, according to Dunn.

By October 2022, the CenterPoint congregation voted down the sale. And in May of 2023, the YMCA announced that they would not partner with the district on the new middle school project.

This narrowed the decision down to a new school housing grades six through eight with no partnership, at either the current Rundlett location or Broken Ground site.

Throughout the summer and fall of last year, board presentations began to evaluate Broken Ground and Rundlett side by side. At the same time, school board races picked up ahead of the November election, with the middle school decision taking center stage in campaigns.

At a candidate forum hosted by the Monitor, Boucher, later elected to Zone B, said the district was past due on the need for a new building. But with a number of remaining unknowns, the decision would be complicated for board members.

“We don’t have the cost, we don’t have the traffic study, we don’t have the water and sewer information,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair for the taxpayers to hear what a decision would be without knowing what the actual cost would be of those items.”

But the board made a decision at their last meeting of the year before the two new members joined and without those updates.

Despite dozens of “Rebuild at Rundlett” pins and signs on display, and overwhelming testimony in favor of the current location, Broken Ground was selected on a 6-3 vote. With a location chosen, firm costs and schematics would be the next step for the new school on Curtisville Road.

The price tag

In the months since that controversial vote, residents have attended school board meetings to plead that the board bring down the $176 million estimate.

The only way to do that, School Board President Pam Walsh has said, is to move forward: the budget will be based on a detailed design, and costs can only be refined with a firm location.

Certain elements of the original estimate are inflating the current price tag, Dunn said. “That number will come down.”

Because the $176 million estimate was drawn up for a Clinton Street school attached to a YMCA, believed to be the costliest of the options under consideration in 2022, the district is expecting site work costs to come down, according to Dunn — although the district does not yet have a comprehensive site work estimate for Broken Ground.

Energy, material costs and square footage are also expected to fall.

About 10,000 square feet of connected space between the school and the YMCA is no longer needed, and can be dropped, according to Dunn. The estimate also provides for geothermal, solar and heat pump options, when, in the final design, the district will choose one. Inflation has also mellowed since the estimate was drawn in 2022, he said.

Beyond those immediate reductions, an up-to-date and more realistic cost estimate relies on the work of the building committee. Its full membership was announced by the district Friday, and it is expected to meet monthly.

In working with architects to make both sweeping and detailed decisions — from whether to have an auditorium to the lighting and flooring materials — the undertaking of the building committee over the next six months is “balancing what the community wants with what the community can afford,” Walsh said.

The members of that committee and its several working groups are yet to be announced, but their first meeting will be March 7, according to the district’s timeline.

The committee’s work will continue throughout the life of the project — including planning the transition between the two schools and exploring what to do with a retired Rundlett building. A new cost estimate is expected in June, according to the contract with the architects, and a final schematic design is scheduled for September.

That leaves the district about ten months to draw up construction plans before July 2025, when the next state budget is passed and the school building aid program is — or is not — funded.

In the fall of 2025, the board will take a final vote on the project and present a bond to fund it with answers to the overall cost and available state aid in hand.

If the board approves the project next fall, construction would begin in January 2026 and wrap up in time for the 2028-2029 school year.

Until that final vote, taxpayers are not committed to pay for the project, Walsh emphasized. While the board has made decisions for this project with estimates in mind, it has taken no action committing taxpayers to $176 million.

“There has not been a vote to build a new middle school; there’s been a vote to design” one, Walsh said at a meeting with city leaders and state representatives last month. “Next year, the school board could say, ‘Nope, we can’t afford it.’”