Current site may be too tight for new Concord middle school

  • Rundlett Middle School, looking down a hallway of sixth-grade classrooms on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Concerns over space constraints on Rundlett Middle School’s current lot in the South End have reopened a conversation about the best potential location for a new middle school. Monitor file

  • Concord School District Superintendent Terry Forsten takes questions during a meeting that presented site plan options for a new school to replace Rundlett Middle School in Concord at the current school on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • The trailhead at North Curtisville Road connects to a trail system on land partially owned by the city school district. Lola Duffort / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 12, 2017

It could be another five years before the Concord School District breaks ground on a new middle school, and school officials have so far only looked seriously at one site: the parcel where Rundlett and Abbot-Downing elementary are located.

But based on the configuration of the new middle school – with accompanying athletic fields and a partnership with the YMCA – that parcel might be too tight.

School board members haven’t discussed the matter formally, but the district owns another site that may be suitable – a 59-acre parcel behind the Mill Brook and Broken Ground elementary schools.

The wooded parcel is adjacent to one owned by the city, and the Batchelder Mill Road hiking trails crisscross both parcels. The district had eyed the land back in the 1980s and considered putting in a joint high school and middle school, but the proposal never went anywhere. The school district may explore building a new school on the land again, but this time just a middle school.

A feasibility study for the new middle school project, presented to the public in February, showed potential configurations of a new building and joint YMCA facility on the northwestern part of the current parcel along South Street, with athletic fields placed between the middle and elementary schools.

But the study also showed that certain configurations – especially the one that includes grades 5 through 8, with a YMCA – were an extremely tight fit on the site.

School Board Chairman Clint Cogswell said it’s too soon to know whether the board will want to take a serious look at the site behind Broken Ground. Its big priorities right now are planning for the likely implementation of full-day kindergarten next year and the budget, he said.

Board members will also probably have to decide what kind of facility they want first, he said – which means deciding whether or not they want to partner with the Y and how many grades the new facility will serve. The first step in that direction will be commissioning a demographic study to project enrollment trends, he said. District officials said they expect to commission one in the spring.

“I don’t think this topic will come up for a while,” Cogswell said.

That makes sense, given the timeline for the project. While discussions have started, district officials had envisioned getting a shovel in the ground by about 2023, school district Business Administrator Jack Dunn told the Monitor during an editorial board meeting last week.

“That’s what we had internally kind of estimated. ... Is it hard and concrete? No,” he said.

Dunn, Concord Superintendent Terri Forsten, Cogswell and Concord YMCA CEO Jim Doremus recently spoke to the Monitor to discuss the considerations at play as the district mulls rebuilding or renovating the aging Rundlett Middle School.

School officials are considering whether to build something from scratch or partially renovate the 60-year-old building. They’re also deciding whether the new facility will house grades 5 through 8 or 6 through 8, and whether they’ll include a partnership with the Concord Y.

But they also emphasized that conversations are looking far into the future.

“This is Step 1 of a long process,” Cogswell said. “Like when we built the elementary schools – that’s not something we did overnight.”

The district has a little more than $3 million in its capital reserve fund. It had initially hoped to have about $8 million to cushion the blow to taxpayers by the time the project rolled around, Dunn said, but the district’s unexpected conversion to gas heat when Concord Steam shut down put a “dent” in those expectation.

Early cost estimates for all the options range from $74 million to $84 million. Architects who presented to the board and the public in September calculated a savings of more than $1 million if the district partnered with the Y for a grades 6-8 facility, but not for a 5-8 facility, where costs would be about the same.

Doremus said the Y would be wholly financially responsible for building costs associated with its part of the facility.

The Y already partners with the district for before- and after-school programs. A joint facility could greatly enhance options for kids in those programs, Doremus said, as well as offerings to the general community.

“We will be in a position to teach many more kids to swim and teach water safety. Our current pool is terrific – (but) it’s four lanes; it’s not big enough,” he said.

District officials and Doremus have already visited Lincoln, Neb., where the school district there has partnered with the YMCA on two new schools. The projects have gone so well school officials say they don’t plan on building new schools without a similar partnership in the future, Dunn said.

In Nebraska, the joint buildings had one portion that was just the school’s, one that was just the Y’s, and a piece in the middle shared by both.

“What they had is magnetic, electronic locks,” Dunn said. “When those security systems are in place, the shared space became the school’s portion. And after a certain time in the day, the locks shifted, and then that became the Y’s portion.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)