Citing increasing enrollment, the Board of Education and the town have begun looking at a propwosal for a $16.91 million adwdition to fix the Saxe Middle School auditorium and add 12 classrooms to accommodate future growth.

"Basically, the Saxe building committee felt the 12-classroom plan met all the needs identified, but it is a significant project and there has been a discussion about what the town can afford at this point," said Penny Rashin, chairwoman of the Saxe Building Committee.

On Monday night, members of the Board of Education seemed to lean in favor of the larger project proposed by the committee to meet "most of the needs" for space and instruction after hearing enrollment projections, which predicted the school would have more than 1,400 students by 2021, more than 200 more than the school's current capacity.

The group, which was originally charged with creating a project to overhaul the auditorium and add performance art and music space, has presented four plans, three of which include expanding the building's footprint to add classroom space.

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On Monday, the group expressed reservations about a scaled-back version of an auditorium and classroom project that would add eight classrooms in a single story and cost $13.085 million.

"The eight-classroom option is clearly a compromise," board member Gene Goodman said.

The larger 12-classroom version would provide enough general, science and special ed class space to maintain a recommended class size of 24 students, officials said.

"If you go with eight classrooms you're going against the (class size) guidelines and you'll have no more space you can manipulate," board member Sangeeta Appel said. "I think it is really important that we look at this so we aren't pennywise and pound foolish."

On the face of it, the smaller single-story addition, in addition to potentially lacking adequate instruction space, has another downside in that it might result in a less-attractive version of the award-winning 220,000-square-foot building, board member Dionna Carlson said.

"I would much rather start with a blank slate and do it once and do it right," Carlson said. "I'm also having a hard time visualizing a one-story addition aesthetically. I think people in this town take great pride in sort of putting things in the community that are visually appealing."

The board is expected to meet Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Saxe to take their official vote to recommend an option for the project. Other town boards are set to take up the issue of the project shortly thereafter.

At the meeting, Gene Torone and Kemp Morhardt, two representatives of the SLAM collaborative, which the town hired to assist with creating the building concepts, outlined how a shortage of classroom space caused by inadequate capacity has resulted in using alcove space for instruction and converting other spaces into classrooms for special education programs.

"You can see the different adaptations of the spaces and a fairly large impact on the originally designed space not being used for the same function," Morhardt said.

The $16.91-million proposal board members appeared to favor would add 11 new classrooms, plus a science, technology, engineering and math classroom in a two-story addition on the northwest section of the campus at a cost of about $9.6 million. The smaller seven-classroom version plus a STEM classroom would cost $5.8 million.

The town began work to consider a stand-alone project to renovate Saxe's 58-year-old auditorium, which has been closed since December, after environmental testing found toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in layers of paint.

The auditorium renovation came in with a probable cost of $5.3 million. The project expanded to include improving the facilities and rooms around the auditorium for the music and performing arts program and add 6,200 square feet of footprint to the building for classrooms and storage. That second option to combine the auditorium work with some expansion was estimated to cost $10.1 million.

Asked to explain what the impact on academics would be if the town chose the smaller expansion, Saxe Middle School Principal Greg Macado said he believes the larger expansion gives administrators a better chance to handle continued growth in the town.

"Any additional space will create some relief from the existing pressures," Macado said. "If we choose the eight classrooms, we will go from meeting most needs to meeting only some needs. And I think that makes a difference."

The building committee also is in the final stages of completing a request for qualifications to select an architect to design whichever building option town officials approve.

Bill Walberg, chairman of the town council and a member of the building committee, said the two options to add either 12 or eight classrooms make more sense than the earlier stand-alone proposal to renovate the auditorium and limit the addition of instructional space to the choral, band, and orchestra programs.

While the $16.91 million and $13.08 million estimates are high, the scope of the proposed buildings are linked to solid enrollment projections, Walberg said.

"If you get over 1,400 students by 2021, I don't know more than anyone else if that is a high tide number or if it would be a new norm," Walberg said. "But the kids we're talking about are in kindergarten, first grade and second grade now, so we're not speculating about what will be. They are in the seats. That makes it easier to make a decision over a period of months rather than years."