CIP Committee Reviews Pricey School District Potential Projects

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) Committee met to review six future capital projects that have been requested by the town and school committee.

Most of the discussion centered on the school district requests which totaled about $62M in potential projects, although these are worst case numbers and the actual cost could be significantly lower depending on how the school district opts to address looming capacity problems in the lower grades.

The CIP is an advisory committee that prioritizes potential capital projects and tentatively slots them to appear on the ballot in certain fiscal years. While they make recommendations, the Town Council and School Boards decide what to put on the ballot each year.

On the town side, the CIP committee slotted a $235K project to improve drainage on the town common into FY2020.  This idea originated with the Heritage Committee which hopes to get the drainage issues fixed prior to the Nutfield 300th celebration.

The CIP also slotted $175K for a new backup generator for the police department to replace the current one which is 16 years old.

Peter Curro, Business Administrator for the school district, presented the school requests. He began by saying that there was a degree of uncertainty in the requests because the district is waiting for a facilities study committee looking at enrollment and program needs to finish their work in October.

According to Curro, the most pressing need is to expand capacity for kindergarten students with Moose Hill School being at capacity. The school district has already approved two modular classrooms for the coming year, but continued growth is expected.

Curro also stated that the elementary schools are nearing capacity with North School closest to being full and South School not far behind.  Matthew Thornton has some additional capacity at this point, but even there he said there is not much space for growth.

CIP member and Town Council Chairman John Farrell pointed out that enrollment in the school district has been declining. As an example, in the late 1980s, Matthew Thornton had 1070 student compared to 550 today.

School district officials and CIP members pointed out that at that point there were much larger class sizes (33 versus 20ish today), hallways and the cafeteria were used for classes and the art and music programs did not have classrooms. In addition, around 2008, the district revamped the special education programs to keep more students in the district.

Since special education programs take more space than is required for conventional students, the overall student capacity of the school decreased. Curro stressed that school capacity cannot be measured by what a fire marshal might say is the maximum capacity because how the space is used by various programs impact the total number of students that can fit.

In exploring ways handle the growing kindergarten and elementary space needs, the school district looked at a few options. One included an expansion of Moose Hill to add 6 classrooms of capacity for a rough cost of $3.5. This assumes that Londonderry sticks with half-day kindergarten.  If Londonderry moved to full day kindergarten then a major expansion would be required at an estimated cost of $10.9M.

Another option was to add a second floor to Moose Hill and move all first graders there, so that the school would host LEEP, kindergarten and first grade. This would alleviate the pressure on the elementary schools for several years, also at rough cost of $10M.

If the idea to move first graders to Moose Hill did not move forward, then Curro says that a new elementary school will be needed in the next five years to accommodate the growing student population. The cost to build is estimated at $26M. In addition, the district ball parked the cost to run a new school at $5M per year.

Also included in the proposed school capital were $15M for a variety of school renovations across the district, including updates to the non-classroom spaces at the Middle School. This also option also includes expansion of Moose Hill.  The Middle School was updated in 1986, but these updates did not include areas such as the cafeteria, gym, library or multi-purpose room. Curro noted that the $15M could be substantially less depending on the chosen solution to alleviate the anticipated kindergarten and elementary school capacity issues.

Farrell asked if the district would be considering redistricting as an option to alleviate space constraints. Curro said yes, but with North and South Schools near capacity the impact of redistricting would be limited.

Farrell shared that while he was not against any of the asks, he did not want to increase the tax burden on residents, so he would want to see an increase in commercial revenue to pay for the increased spending.  With the help of Finance Director Doug Smith, he estimated that if the full $62 M had to be covered the town would need to develop an additional $230M in commercial valuation, or roughly what FW Webb provides.

Alternatively, if residential taxpayers footed the entire bill, it would add about $2.50 per thousand of assessed value to the tax bill. For a $400K house that would be $800/year.

Curro pointed out that in 10 years, all the current school district bonds will be paid off.  He estimated that the debt coming off books will pay for most of new bond payment costs for Moose Hill expansion, the district-wide renovation and the auditorium.

The CIP also discussed a request for the long-discussed and debated new auditorium for the high school at a $10M price tag. CIP member Mary Wing Soares was the lone committee member pushing to up the priority on this item. Other members felt that the space issues and the schools was something that should be tackled first.

In the end, the CIP recommended the town common and police generator spending in FY2020, an expansion of Moose Hill in FY2021, the district-wide school updates in FY2023, the auditorium in FY2024 and the new elementary school in FY2025.

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