Saxe debate heats up as expansion decision looms
As town leaders consider a solution to increasing school enrollment, parents turned out in force last week to voice their support of expanding Saxe Middle School.
“We know the specifics: enrollment has outpaced Saxe’s facilities capabilities,” parent Janet Fonns said at a special meeting last Wednesday. “ …We have undersized classrooms, and undersized special education classrooms as well. We have kids coming in 2017 and no place to put them. There is no uncertainty about that.”
Even with a quick approval of the proposed 25,000-square-foot expansion, Katrina Park Hill, a parent of a fifth-grader entering the school this fall, said her daughter’s education would be impacted by the crowding for at least the next two years. Approving the 12-classroom addition sends the right message to the town’s families with school-aged children, she said.
“The word is out that Saxe is overcrowded and getting worse. What do we want our realtors, friends and family to say to their clients, neighbors and friends when asked about what is being done about overcrowding?” Hill said. “I hope they can say that there is a plan and adequate funding in place.”
Parents and other residents spoke at the public hearing as town leaders await construction designs before making an anticipated decision on how large an expansion to approve for the school.
After the public hearing, members of the Saxe Building Committee and Schools Superintendent Brian Luizzi spent more than an hour with the council presenting plans for a dozen new classrooms in a new wing. Demographers project a jump in enrollment of more than 1,400 students by 2020, according to the group, while the school is currently built to accommodate 1,200.
The group also confidently dismissed the hypothetical alternatives of moving eighth-graders to the high school or fifth-graders back to the town’s elementary schools to avoid a building project. Both moves would require their own building projects that would likely exceed the cost of a Saxe expansion, Penny Rashin, chairwoman of the Saxe Building Committee, said.
JCJ Architecture has been hired and is working on full construction plans for the 12-classroom addition out of $750,000 of pre-construction funds approved this spring.
“We’ve had eighth grade at the high school and it is a very different educational model so you’d really have to segregate it,” Rashin said of the concept of moving eighth-graders across the road to the high school.
The town’s consultant, SLAM, calculated the need for 12 classrooms to provide a comfortable margin for the expected 200 to 300 students, Rashin told council members. The building will include nine academic classrooms, a scientific classroom and two properly sized special education classrooms.
Assuming 8,000 households, the estimated cost of the 12-classroom project per taxpayer is $140 a year to pay back about $1.2 million in debt service a year on 20-year bonds, the group said.
Since 1999, the district has juggled space 27 times to squeeze in programs, often into undersized spaces, Rashin said. The moves have included converting space designed for other purposes like storage, conference, and faculty work rooms into smaller-than-normal classrooms for both general and special education classes, she said.
“These necessary changes have put our academic classes into undersized rooms,” Rashin said. “…It is overcrowded now.”
Moving fifth-graders to the elementary school could be done, but Rashin said the town’s three elementary schools, East, South and West, would each need about six to eight classrooms, costing at least $24 million, according to a “very rough” cost estimate by JCJ Architecture, Rashin said.
“There are space constraints and ground conditions in each place,” Rankin said.
Council members debated during the meeting about how much time and money would be appropriate to evaluate other scenarios in-depth or study enrollment trends at the elementary and high school levels.
“I’m concerned to not find two years from now that we have to redo something at the high school, don’t have to redo something at the high school or have to redo the elementary school,” Council member Roger Williams said. “While I appreciate the work that has gone in here, I think this is a back of the envelope calculation at the elementary schools rather than having a programmatic study done.”
Council member Kevin Moynihan asked about the option of a more extensive expansion of one elementary school to accommodate the fifth-graders in elementary schools, an option that Saxe Middle School building committee member Jim Beall said would cost $30 million.
“At some point we have to make a decision,” Beall said. “... If you put it all together, this (the Saxe expansion) is the most effective, most easily implemented, and turns out with a good result.”
While most speakers at the meeting supported the Saxe expansion, two speakers questioned the rationale for the expansion.
Michael Nowacki, a recently declared libertarian candidate for the office of first selectman, told the council neither the auditorium renovation that the projected was initially proposed as or the seven- or 12-classroom expansion the project grew into over the past year are a good use of taxpayers’ money.
Nowacki urged the council to look beyond the expansion at other scenarios to move students to elementary or high school space.
“58 percent of the town’s taxpayers will not have a child enrolled in New Canaan Public Schools this fall,” Nowacki said.
John Engel, a town council member questioned, why the governing body wasn’t voting on the project since the building committee had chosen to spend design funds to create full plans for the 12-classroom expansion, but not the smaller seven-classroom option.
The council’s decision in September could be an all or nothing proposition if the 12-classroom project is rejected, because the town’s architect will not have completed plans for the seven-classroom option and would need more time do so, committee members acknowledged.
“This presupposes a ‘yes’ vote, so if you got a ‘no,’ we’d all be sitting around saying now what? Is it take this as described or you do nothing? Because that isn’t possible either,” Engel said. “I’m trying to understand what are the alternatives as they’ve been anticipated as part of the mechanics of this.”
Rashin said rejecting the 12-classroom option the committee recommended, would throw off the construction schedule.
“If the town said it wanted to cut back and do a one-story addition that would be a project we did not design,” Rashin said. “…We would likely not be in the ground in June 2016.”
Bill Walbert, the town council chairman who served on the Saxe Building Committee, told his fellow council members he favors the 12-classroom option as the best fit given the enrollment projections.
“The building committee would love to say here is a big solution but we’ve found a way to jam it into a seven-classroom addition,” Walbert said. “We’d love to look everyone in the eye and say we can save you $3 million bucks, because we’ve found a way. But we haven’t been able to do that.”
Moynihan said with the amount of work done toward the 12-classroom option it will most likely be approved quickly.
“I’ve had very respectable people come to me and say put the fifth grade back into the elementary schools, it’s a better solution even if it costed more, but for $31 million it is not a good trade-off,” Moynihan said. “It would be very difficult now that we’ve identified a need(for space), to not deal with it.”