Opinion: A deeper debate is needed on the future of Concord’s middle school

  • Citizens aligned with the initiative Rebuild at Rundlett are urging the Concord School District to rebuild the middle school on it's current South Street site instead of buying new land on Clinton Street. Monitor file

Published: 7/10/2022 7:03:03 AM
Modified: 7/10/2022 7:00:16 AM

Ralph Jimenez of Concord served on the Monitor editorial board.

The agita over the potential completion of the northwest bypass past Concord Hospital has largely abated. The yard signs on the lawns of the parkway’s opponents have come down. Not so for the signs urging that the replacement for Concord’s aged middle school be built on the 23-acre site of the current school. The “Parks not Parkways” signs disappeared but the “Rebuild@Rundlett” signs remain.

Last month, Concord’s school board and district officials, exercising the kind of foresight and due diligence that allowed the city’s elementary schools to be restructured and replaced under budget and without a hitch, submitted an application for state building aid that’s based on the purchase of a 38-acre Clinton Street parcel currently owned by CenterPoint Church. The application, if successful, does not bind the district to its plan to purchase the property and build on it. It simply holds the district’s place in line.

The Langley Parkway and Rundlett issues are conjoined, of course. The Clinton Street site lies at the southern terminus of the existing parkway. If the new middle school is built there, how will the school buses and hundreds of parental cars that now clog South Street get to it? Down Liberty Street to Warren, the current fire and ambulance route, then either past Memorial Field to Clinton Street, past the hospital entrance and Hitchcock Clinic to the bypass, or by cutting through neighborhoods as many motorists do now?

Replacing Rundlett, according to the district’s aid application, is estimated to cost more than $176 million. The city council’s recent decision to delete the parkway project from the capital budget and sell its existing right-of-way risks creating a “you can’t get there from here” situation.

The new school will have an estimated lifespan of at least 50 years but it seems that few players, at least publicly, are looking more than a few years out. A much broader community conversation is called for.

Concord’s population is approximately 44,000. The demographic study commissioned by the school district a few years ago did not foresee significant growth in school enrollment, but things are changing fast. New Hampshire was the fastest-growing state in the Northeast last year.

As Concord’s City Manager, Tom Aspell, noted in a recent talk, for the past two years Concord’s real estate market has been rated one of the hottest in the nation. Much of the west is on fire, out of water, or both, and the heat and humidity of summers in the south threaten to poach residents who venture outdoors. Climate change migration has begun. New Hampshire has shade, water, and reasonably tolerable temperatures, not to mention no sales or income tax. Developers have taken note.

The pandemic, supply chain problems, a massive increase in the cost of lumber and other construction materials, plus a labor shortage resulted in a dramatic reduction in the creation of new housing units nationally and in Concord. But an informal tally of projects either permitted, in the works or under serious discussion, could add more than 1,200 housing units in Concord over the next few years.

The figure is squishy: 600 of the potential units are proposed for the parcel that’s home to this newspaper, but others are solid. Those include 64 units scheduled for the former employment security building on South Main Street, 164 units on Langdon Avenue, 168 units on Garvins Falls Road, 48 on Sheep Davis Road, and 134 on Pembroke Road.

In a few years, Concord could be a city of 50,000. Many, if not most, cities that size have two or more middle schools. Nationally, the enrollment of the average middle school is 575. Rundlett, at its peak, had nearly 1,100 students. Last year, it had 861. What would the enrollment of a single Concord middle school be in five, ten, or 20 years? That depends on what gets built and who occupies the housing: retirees, young professionals who pair up and start families, or new American families with children.

Before plans for Rundlett’s replacement are set in stone the city should discuss whether one school can meet future needs. Two schools mean a bigger hit for taxpayers but twice as many opportunities for sports, extracurricular activities and leadership for children. It also means less of a shock for transitioning elementary school students.

A smaller middle school would probably fit on the existing Rundlett parcel. If two schools are built, creating economically and socially equitable institutions would probably mean drawing enrollment lines, not on the river’s north-south axis, but with an east-west division.

There are only 11 buildable acres on the existing Rundlett parcel, which is home to the Abbot-Downing school and transected by Bow Brook, which, if nature is respected, makes four acres unwise for development. Not that long ago, Bow Brook flooded, closing Warren Street east of the high school and undermining a school district building that was later demolished. The weather, as we all know, is getting weirder.

A potentially better site for a single school, one already owned by the city, apparently never came up for consideration. Russell Martin Park, a 29-acre parcel on Ironworks Road that sees seasonal use for a Little League park and soccer fields, is close by Rundlett and walkable for nearby South End residents. Negotiations would be delicate, but the site should be considered.

Predicting the future is perilous, but assuming that things will stay pretty much the way they’ve always been even more so. Concord needs a much deeper debate about the future of its middle school and its plans to move traffic that, though it will be much quieter and cleaner in the near electric future, will still need a way to get from here to there.

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