Groton plan to build new elementary schools will require voter approval

Groton — The state has approved a plan for the construction of two brand-new elementary schools, rather than converting existing middle schools, but the plan will require voters' approval at a referendum to move forward. 

Two years ago, residents at a referendum backed spending $184.5 million for the Groton 2020 Plan to build a new consolidated middle school at the former Merritt Farm property, adjacent to Robert E. Fitch High School, and to convert the town's current two middle schools into renovated "like new" elementary schools.

Town Manager John Burt said that the state gave approval for the new elementary schools, since that plan would actually cost less than a renovation project.

To proceed with the updated plan, the town would need to amend the ordinance approved at the 2016 referendum so it reflects that the current middle school buildings would be replaced with two new elementary schools, rather than renovated into elementary schools. The plan to build the consolidated middle school at the former Merritt Farm site remains the same.

The Town Planning Commission has approved the change, and the City Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to review it on Tuesday. The Board of Education will consider the change at its Oct. 22 meeting.

The Town Council has scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m. Oct. 23 in Community Room 1 of the Town Hall Annex, and will afterward consider adopting an ordinance that amends the original one. The ordinance would next move to the Representative Town Meeting. If the Town Council approves it and it doesn't get vetoed by the RTM, the proposal would then go to a referendum on Dec. 11.

Superintendent Michael Graner said building new schools will provide an opportunity to design buildings specifically for elementary education purposes, rather than renovate ones built for middle school programs.

He noted that educational programming, especially special education programming, has changed since the middle-school buildings were constructed more than 50 years ago. The  buildings can be designed for current educational programs and incorporate technology and other features exactly as desired. They will also have new infrastructure.

Under the plan to build new elementary schools, the town wouldn't have to wait until construction on the middle school wraps up in June 2020 to begin working on the elementary schools, Burt said.

"With new elementary schools you can build them while building the middle school," Burt said. 

If the change is approved at referendum, local officials anticipate the new elementary schools would be ready for the 2021-22 school year.

The estimated construction cost for the Carl C. Cutler Middle School site is $45,800,000, with a maximum state reimbursement of 80 percent; construction at the West Side Middle School site is estimated at $45,600,000, with a maximum reimbursement rate of 47.5 percent, according to Burt.

The consolidated middle school would cost about $86,090,000, with the estimated reimbursement of 47.5 percent.

If the proposed change doesn't pass at referendum, Burt said the town would continue with the middle school and look at options for the elementary schools.

"If we had to renovate as new, we are unsure of the financial impact since it is likely some items would become ineligible for reimbursement," he said, adding that it wouldn't be possible to determine what the reimbursement is, if any, for each item until the state notified the town as it proceeded through the design process.

k.drelich@theday.com

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