Just weeks after the Madison Board of Education (BOE) voted on a model for reconfiguration, renovation, and reconstruction of the district’s elementary schools, debates are brewing amongst political parties, town boards, and residents. With some residents raising objections and others asking questions, at the BOE meeting on May 9, board members began addressing some perceived misconceptions and some so-called “unknowns”.
Madison’s discussion about a long-term plan for its public school facilities began 2 ½ years ago in response to growing concerns over declining enrollment, the age of the district’s buildings, and the need to ensure the buildings could support the structural vision of the district. The BOE settled on a five-school model (closing Island Avenue Elementary) in October 2016, but with the state budget crisis and growing concern over equity between elementary schools, the final arrangement within a five-school model had been a moving target. On April 18, the board voted to move one of three options forward to other town boards and ultimately the voters.
The board voted five to four on party lines under the Republican majority to move forward with Option Three, a plan to address a total rebuild of Ryerson Elementary School and a renovation of Jeffrey Elementary School over the course of two referenda, rather than Option Two, which would have addressed Ryerson and Jeffrey in the same referendum, or Option One, which involved a rebuild of Ryerson and a more gradual renovation of Jeffrey over a 10-year plan.
Under Option Three, a Ryerson project will be submitted to the state this year, but the Jeffrey project won’t be submitted to the state until 2019. This option is the most expensive and has a longer overall timeline, but does still address the concern of equity (all elementary students will have new schools under this plan) and could have some financial bonding advantages.
To complete Option Three, the total estimated project cost comes to $65.8 million with an estimated district share of somewhere between $55.2- and $59.4 million and would be divided between the two referenda. Renovation rates from the state are a bit more difficult to nail down for this option.
While the Ryerson project, if submitted to the state in June, would be subject to the 2017 reimbursement rate for new construction of 17.5 percent, rates are very likely to change after this year due to proposed legislation. If they do, Colliers International, the board’s project manager, is only estimating a 15 percent reimbursement rate from the state for renovations if a Jeffrey project is submitted in 2019.
The timeline under Option Three is also the most extensive. A new Ryerson would be designed and constructed from late 2017 through summer 2020 and the Jeffrey renovation would be designed and completed from summer 2019 through to summer 2022. Jeffrey would still be offline for two academic years, but the town and the district would not have to manage two construction projects simultaneously.
When the selected model was presented to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) and Board of Finance (BOF) on April 24, some residents strongly objected to the advancement of Option Three over Option Two, expressing concerns over financing and parity should a second referendum not come to fruition or not pass.
At the BOE meeting on May 9, Democratic Town Committee Vice-chair Matt Parthasarthy asked the board to address concerns pertaining to the future of Island Avenue Elementary under all models and the school’s future should no model pass at referendum.
“There is some confusion with the public as far as the vote that just passed a few weeks ago, which I know is going to the BOS and BOF and then ultimately to referendum on the school utilization plan,” he said. “Should it get to referendum and should that referendum fail, what would happen to the Island School? I think we all have an idea; I don’t think it is clear.”
Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice said under all models, and if no model passes, it is likely that Island Avenue would ultimately close in the future. While any closure would be a few years down the road, due to declining enrollment, Scarice said there is still room to re-district students to Jeffrey and Ryerson.
“Based on one of the three goals of the facilities study, which is to address declining enrollment, at some point we do have to address that if none of the options are voted for affirmatively,” he said. “I imagine there is a distinct possibility that Island would still be closed and the students would be redistricted K-3 at Jeffery and Ryerson.”
Looking at student capacity studies performed by the board’s consultants, Scarice said with the current construction of each school including portable classrooms, Jeffrey can hold 368 students, Ryerson 304, and Island 348 in the current K-4 model. However, Scarice pointed out that in 2004, 944 students were enrolled in Jeffrey and Ryerson. With declining enrollment projections, students could be redistricted to the two remaining elementary schools under the K-3 model and not exceed capacity.
Through public comment and letters to this paper, residents have also raised concerns over the need to fully renovate Ryerson and the decision to place Jeffrey in a separate referendum and later construction date.
BOE Chair Jean Fitzgerald said representatives from the state came down to Madison on May 11 to tour Ryerson and Jeffrey and agreed with the assessment that it would be more financially responsible to build new rather than renovate when it comes to Ryerson.
“They [the state] confirmed the assessment of Colliers and [the board’s consultants] DRA that it would not be cost effective to try and renovate Ryerson, in part, based on the ADA issues,” she said. “The poured concrete ramps at Ryerson are not ADA compliant. The entire school is composed of these ramps. Unfortunately, there is not even enough room within the current square footage to widen and adjust elevation in order to meet current codes.”
In regard to the longer timeline under Option Three, after the meeting Fitzgerald said it would be difficult to run two school construction projects at the same time, especially with the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library renovation going on concurrently in another part of town.
“The financial management of three major bond projects going on in our town, simultaneously, would have a negative impact on our Finance Department’s ability to address all their responsibilities for the town,” she said. “In addition, timing wise, drawing down on multiple bond projects at the same time would create, in the short term, a spike in debt service and in turn an increase in taxes.”
Despite the controversy, as Option Three moves forward to the BOF and BOS, Fitzgerald said the boards’ objective is to operate in the interest of all students, protect the annual operating budget, protect the taxpayers, and plan for the future of the district school buildings.
“I think people look at our buildings and say they are in good shape,” she said. “But, as in the natural course of any district, things like our brick and mortar, mechanicals, and in Madison’s case, our portables, are in need. We have extensive MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] and ADA reports from our consultants on all of our buildings, which outlines, prioritizes, and provides cost estimates for these needs…Our professional consultants have studied our facilities for over two years. We have taken our time and exhausted many options, before deciding on the BOE adopted plan.”
The Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance take up discussion on the School Utilization Study model on Wednesday, June 7.