Editorial: The right path on Rundlett

  • 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

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Rundlett Middle School was once a big deal. A thousand people turned out for its opening as Rundlett Junior High. The ceremony was held on Oct. 20, 1957.

Today, the old school’s bones, at 60, are still sound but its roof is nearly shot, its heating and ventilation systems are out of date, and, worst of all, its 1950s design and layout – small rooms along long, long hallways – are an educational hindrance not a help.

Twenty-first century education is no longer as desk-based as it once was. School design must be conducive to both collaboration and independent study. That means large flexible spaces and lots of nooks and crannies for quiet study, small gatherings or individual help.

Concord’s three new elementary schools, which opened five years ago, are much different than the buildings they replaced.

Earlier this fall, Concord’s school board and school district officials hosted the first of what will be many public meetings to discuss whether Rundlett should be renovated or replaced. All the options are within a few million dollars of each other. All cause sticker shock.

Some preliminary proposals involve a partnership with Concord’s YMCA, others are stand-alone school district projects. Some would renovate and retain some or all of the current school, others would replace it entirely.

Rundlett has become like an old car that’s still runs but requires the equivalent of a car payment per month in repairs to remain road-worthy. It should be replaced, not refurbished.

The cost – estimates are all in the $80 million range – in the absence of state school building aid could mean a $370 to $420 tax increase for the owner of home valued at $250,000. That’s a big hit in a city where many residents struggle to pay property taxes that increase faster than incomes.

The state picked up 43 percent of the cost of Concord’s three new elementary schools, but school building aid was mothballed eight years ago. It’s anyone’s guess whether that aid will ever return or how many holes will be in it when it does.

This year, Gov. Chris Sununu used $19 million of an ample state surplus to create a fund to help school districts improve safety, security and internet access, but that money won’t go far and the governor warned that the aid could be a one-time deal.

Since more than half of the state’s schools are, like Rundlett, more than a half-century old, if school building aid isn’t restored at ample levels either education or property owners will suffer.

Concord’s school board and district officials have been there before, and they plan to be ready if building aid in any form becomes available. That’s why, school board chairman Clint Cogswell told Monitor editors recently, plans for Rundlett are being made now though the board doesn’t expect to break ground on the Rundlett project for another five or so years.

Meanwhile, the district is salting away a bit of money each year in a capital reserve fund designed to soften the blow to taxpayers when the bills start coming in. It’s the right approach, and a smart one.

To prosper, the city needs to attract good employers and young workers and their families. “How good are the schools?” is the first question asked. As good as the education in it might be, an old tired school sends the wrong message.

(Coming Wednesday: Why the school district should partner with the Y.)