Opinion: Examining trust in the school board

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 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. Monitor file


Published: 02-29-2024 3:37 PM

Bert Cooper is a local attorney living in the South End of Concord. His children attended Conant, Abbot-Downing, Rundlett, and Concord High School.

The Concord School Board is unique in our state. It is effectively independent from the citizens of Concord who it serves, and who it has unfettered power to tax. Once elected, school district budgets and decisions are solely the board’s decision. It takes six years to replace the board. Such awesome power demands unparalleled trust. This board illustrates why school boards need many more checks and balances.

The board is planning to build a new middle school on a forested site at Broken Ground (BG) for $138,000,000, in lieu of renovating or rebuilding Rundlett Middle School. Given the magnitude of the expense and that any new or renovated school will serve for many decades to come, one assumes the board would solicit and encourage public participation throughout the process.

On the critical decision of location, the board had no desire to involve the public. Before presenting to the public, the board reviewed and eliminated many sites, including the BG site. It presented plans to the public to rebuild at Rundlett. This didn’t satisfy those on the board who insisted on a “greenfield” (unbuilt) site.

Late in the process, they invited public comment on the site choices, for show. Hours spent by the public learning about the sites, attending meetings, and commenting on the benefits and detriments of BG versus Rundlett were a waste of the public’s time.

Residents who showed up or commented in writing expressed overwhelming support for the existing Rundlett location. Trust placed in the board, that the board would listen to and engage with the wise counsel of the public, was ill-founded. Rather than engage, the board ignored the public and didn’t even attempt to respond to the many benefits articulated for the Rundlett site and all of the detriments of the BG site.

The board gave up attempting to claim that BG would be less expensive. Their analysis materially mislead as to the true cost at each site, including the omission of extra bussing and infrastructure costs at BG. An inclusive analysis revealed it would be up to $5,000,000 cheaper for taxpayers to rebuild at Rundlett.

The board’s declared reasons for BG included “equity” for the east side of Concord. They claimed east side students are bussed to “both middle and high school, while west side students are able to spend their entire educational careers … on their side of the city.” This implies that west side students aren’t bussed — many are. They don’t explain the benefit of bussing east side middle schoolers to an isolated location on the east side rather than to Rundlett (near the high school, Memorial Field, the science center, the State House).

This “reason” assumes we forget that the board spent valuable time and money trying to acquire the Centerpoint Fields on Clinton Street for the new school site. In pitching Clinton Street, the board reviewed and eliminated BG because of infrastructure and other issues (which deficiencies remain today), leaving only Clinton Street and Rundlett. Once Centerpoint declined to sell in October 2022, BG miraculously reappeared. Equity?

The board says that BG offers expansion potential. Initial plans shown to the public pictured a school for 1,000 students. Current plans are for 905 students. Current enrollment is 772. Our average age in Concord is 40. Our birth rate is below the replacement rate. New construction in the district is for “childless couples.” If the board was planning for a large new YMCA building along with the middle school on the Rundlett site, there isn’t space for expansion. When will we need expansion?

“Shorter construction timeline” was also a reason. Building the YMCA along with the new middle school would have added to the construction time and complexity. It wasn’t an impediment. We know that both our district and other districts have rebuilt on existing sites. Little to nothing was presented on speeding up a rebuild.

They claim that students’ studies will be disturbed by construction and demolition at Rundlett. This reconstruction was done for the elementary schools, with little impact according to public testimony from parents and teachers. The current principal of Rundlett indicated minimal disruption when his prior middle school was rebuilt on-site. What about the impact of postponing, by several years, the whole project while they chased alternate sites and combinations with the Y? By declining to do any significant renovations at Rundlett (e.g. electrical), the board diminished the learning environment of past, current, and future middle school students for years, all in pursuit of a greenfield site. Save a year and a half of construction time by postponing project initiation for several years?

The board feels no duty to respond to the public and simply ignores any comments pointing out critical deficiencies of BG and any benefits of Rundlett. They neither engage nor provide any explanation for their rejection of the wisdom and experience of the public. Their purported rationale for BG is in conflict with their past actions. Can we trust them in the future? Can we trust their reasons for a $138,000,000 rebuild?

The time has come to change their decisions, their membership, or their structure.