School board rejects Rundlett site for new middle school
Published: 12-06-2023 10:35 PM
Modified: 12-07-2023 5:38 PM
Three residents had already expressed their desire for a new Concord middle school to be built next to the existing one when Kassandra Ardinger stepped up to the microphone.
The collective sentiment in the Concord High School auditorium was already crystal clear – the audience of 100 was pushing heavily for the new school to remain in the South End of the city.
Ardinger, a former school board member herself, had a message for the city’s elected representatives: Listen to your constituents.
She warned that neglecting the community’s resounding feedback to rebuild at Rundlett could pose an “implicit threat” to the school district’s governance and fiscal autonomy, emphasizing the importance of the board maintaining the trust placed in its elected representatives.
“To decide otherwise, without giving well thought out responses to voters concerns I’m afraid would be tantamount to snubbing your noses at the community and would assuredly lead to long term consequences, which would ultimately lead to a weakening of all that makes the governance of our school district healthy and the envy of so many other school districts around the state,” said Ardinger before the vote, receiving nods of approval from the audience.
However, the majority of the board members were unswayed by her remarks and of the other 15 speakers who lobbied to keep the middle school on South Street.
Instead, by a 6-3 vote, the board chose to build a new school on the other side of the Merrimack River next to the Broken Ground and Mill Brook schools.
Bob Cotton, Tom Croteau, Jim Richards, Sarah Robinson, Pam Walsh, and Jonathan Weinberg voted in favor of building a new school on raw land. The dissenting votes came from Brenda Hastings, Cara Meeker, and Barb Higgins, who stood against the decision.
Weinberg, who represents Wards 5, 6, and 7, justified his choice by citing potential disruption for students at the existing middle school location.
“Students from financially advantaged backgrounds can have tutors. They can have expert study support to mitigate those disruption challenges whereas students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds do not have those same means to help support and provide extra avenues,” explained Weinberg. “I want to make sure that students when they are in the school can maintain focus, be there and be present and able to help support their academic journeys.”
Other reasons for not selecting the Rundlett site for board members included limited expansion space and an additional $5.5 million cost to build at that site, $4.4 million of which is associated with demolition costs.
Meeker asked the board to reconsider their decision and give more weight to the community’s feedback.
“Be excited that they are excited, be positive that they are positive and they want the school at the existing site,” said Meeker as the residents cheered in agreement. “We can do hard things. We can overcome challenges. We can bring down costs. This is a community building. This is placemaking. I think we should respect what our constituents are asking of us.”
Almost every attendee in the auditorium sported a “Rebuild at Rundlett” sticker. Even those without stickers still expressed their support for the Rundlett site and applauded each speaker at the microphone advocating for the South Street location.
However, their effort was insufficient to persuade the school board to select the Rundlett site. School board members said that not all opinions were expressed at the meeting.
Tensions heightened when board President Richards suggested that not all Concord residents were represented in the meeting, particularly those facing challenges such as childcare responsibilities and multiple jobs, preventing them from testifying in person.
Residents at the meeting asked the board not to shame them for where they lived.
“I’m not shaming you for where you live. What I’m saying is there is a huge part of this community that didn’t have enough, doesn’t have an opportunity to be able to be at this meeting,” said Richards.
For every rationale put forth by a board member against the Rundlett site, members of the audience responded with their counter-arguments.
One resident even explained how the anticipated disruption could yield positive benefits for the students.
“I don’t want to dismiss the disruption, but I also think it’s overblown,” said Alex Streeter, a Ward 7 resident who has a child in third grade. “I actually look at it as a bit of an opportunity to allow the students to see what it means to build something. They will see the giant machinery, they will see the metalwork going up, they will see plumbers, they will see electricians. They will see tradespeople. I think that exposure has value.”
Higgins expressed her dilemma as she weighed the pros and cons of both locations. She suggested tabling the decision and exploring the option of renovating the existing school due to cost considerations, but the motion did not pass.
Only one resident spoke in support of building the middle school at the Broken Ground Site at the public meeting.
“When I think about the Heights, we’ve been neglecting them for eons and eons. To me, a middle school would help revitalize or re-energize that community,” said Dave Parker, a former school board member. “I think a middle school there would be a nice statement for the people that we value them and we value putting a school closer to them.”
Residents also expressed concerns that the school district’s communication on the matter appeared biased, particularly in favor of the Broken Ground location.
In the financial reports comparing costs at the two sites, it was highlighted that the Rundlett site would cost an additional $5.5 million. The Broken Ground location appeared to have no additional costs associated with it, even though it required additional infrastructure such as transportation, upgrades to a sewer pump, and the installation of a booster pump station — all of which come with hefty price tags.
Ward 7 resident Bert Cooper said that if genuinely compelling reasons for choosing the Broken Ground site existed, the meeting wouldn’t have been so contentious. In such a scenario, the school board would have already successfully persuaded the public of the merits of the new location. The district minimized the issues of Broken Ground so badly, it should be rejected, he said.
“What does the project website tell us? All the benefits of Broken Ground and the scant mention of benefits of Rundlett,” said Cooper. The Broken Ground site will require cutting eight acres of trees and relocating existing hiking trails. “It’s isolation and expensive infrastructure updates will have to be arranged with the city, which means it’s a contingency and those contingencies affect money.”
A new middle school is estimated to cost $175 million with construction beginning in 2025. The school board said it would explore different ways to bring the costs down. A vote on the bond will occur at another time.