Groton superintendent: Building new elementary schools would be more cost-efficient

Groton — New elementary school buildings would provide greater value to the community, with no increase in the price of the school plan approved two years ago, according to schools Superintendent Michael Graner.

At a referendum slated for next month, voters will decide whether or not to approve a revision to the Groton 2020 plan to instead build two elementary schools, rather than convert the town's two middle schools into elementary schools. Graner, meanwhile, said in a recent interview that building new schools is the more cost-efficient option.

Two years ago, Groton voters approved a $184.5 million proposal to build one new consolidated middle school on the former Merritt Farm property next to Fitch High School and renovate the existing middle schools into two elementary schools. After the town notified the state Department of Administrative Services School Construction Grants and Review of the outcome of the vote, DAS officially approved the school plan in a letter and confirmed the state’s commitment to pay $100 million of the $184.5 million project, Graner said. The Permanent School Building Committee then began work to design the schools.

But DAS later notified the town that its guidelines had changed, opening up the possibility for a new plan for the elementary schools, he said. If school officials could prove it was more cost efficient to build new schools than to do renovations, DAS would consider approving the same funding. Architects, the Permanent School Building Committee and school officials met last summer with DAS officials in Hartford to discuss the cost estimates of renovating the two schools compared to the cost of building new schools.

“It turns out that building new was more cost-efficient,” Graner said.

At the same project cost of $184.5 million for a middle school and two elementary schools, the town found that it could get more value with new elementary buildings than renovated ones, he said. The new buildings would last longer, be energy-efficient and feature modern technology. They also could be built specifically for elementary school children.

“For the same price we could build modern, energy-efficient schools that are designed to meet the learning needs of young children and those buildings are anticipated to last from 45 to 50 years,” Graner said. The demolition costs of the two existing middle schools is included in the project cost, he said.

Converting middle schools into elementary schools would require extensive alterations to the buildings, such as re-sizing classrooms for elementary students and adding bathrooms to classrooms designated for early childhood learning, he explained. Plus, the expected life for a renovated building is 25 years.

In August, the town received permission from DAS to build new elementary schools, Graner said. But since the referendum language approved by voters in 2016 says the existing middle school buildings will be renovated into like-new elementary schools, the town will need approval to revise the language to specify that new elementary schools would instead be built on the sites of the existing middle schools. There is no change to the original plan to build a new consolidated middle school adjacent to the high school.

The Town Council has approved the change and, as long as the Representative Town Meeting doesn’t veto it, the referendum will be held Dec. 11.

Graner pointed out that if the town had to renovate the two middle schools into elementary schools, it would have to wait for the new consolidated middle school to be completed in the fall of 2020. The plan to build new elementary schools on the sites of the middle schools, adjacent to where the existing buildings stand, allows the town to build all three schools at the same time.

The anticipated opening date for the new elementary schools would be fall of 2021, he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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