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$80 Million Elementary School Project Goes To Voters at Spring Town Meeting

Architect's rendering of proposed new elementary school building.

 

by Robert Stewart
 
While the School Committee had to devote considerable time and energy during spring and summer to ensure the continuity of the educational program in the Groton-Dunstable School District and the safety of students amid a viral pandemic, they also continued work on their other top priority – a building plan to replace the 61-year old Florence Roche Elementary School building. At presentations before the School Committee and the Select Board, Building Committee members outlined details about the building plan including benefits of a new building, costs and tax impacts of the project, and drawings showing a rendering of the building and detailed floor plans.
     The presentation before the Select Board on Oct. 5 provided an opportunity for a wide- ranging discussion involving costs and benefits, time schedules and siting issues. The proposal approved by the Building Committee calls for construction of a new elementary school building that contains 109,800 square feet of space and has a capacity of 645 students in grades Kindergarten through four. The current Florence Roche Building has 69,468 square feet of space and houses 530 students. If the new building is approved by Groton voters, approximately 100 Groton students currently attending Swallow/Union School in Dunstable would be relocated to the new Florence Roche School building. With the current enrollment of 530 students and the addition of 100 new students, the building would be near capacity.
     The proposed new building would contain 36 classrooms – seven classrooms for Kindergarten, six classrooms for each grade in grades one through four, and five special education classrooms. The new building would have two stories with the first floor containing classroom spaces, a gymnasium, a cafeteria and a media center. The second floor would contain mostly classroom space along with music rooms and art rooms. The new building is proposed to be partially located on the existing track behind the current Florence Roche building. During construction, the old building will continue to be used for classroom space. Once the new building is completed the old building will be torn down creating sizeable open space in front of the new building.
     The new building proposal is anticipated to cost approximately $80 million. Of that $80 million, the state is expected to cover $25 million leaving the town’s share of the cost at $55 million. According to the Building Committee, the tax impact of borrowing $55 million would be approximately $61 a month or a little more than $700 annually on a homeowner’s tax bill. That tax impact is based on the average valuation of a home in Groton of $492,500. Because the new building proposal is a Groton-only project, Dunstable voters do not have to approve the plan or the funding source for the project. Groton voters will consider the proposal at Annual Town Meeting in spring 2021 and then vote on the funding at Town Elections following Annual Town Meeting.
     During discussion of the proposal at the Select Board meeting, School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert, who is also a member of the Building Committee, noted that the location and layout of the new school building itself was considered and designed with community use in mind. Gilbert said the landscape design provides areas for community use and also for larger type community events like the Groton Road Race. Gilbert also noted that the floor plans for the building
layout considered community use of the new building. She said common areas in the new school building like the gymnasium and cafeteria were located on the first floor making them adaptable for community use. Such a layout, she added, would also provide classroom security as most classrooms are located on the second floor.
     In addressing cost issues associated with construction of a new school building, Gilbert indicated that while the COVID-19 pandemic has created some financial uncertainty, it has not changed the situation of trying to conduct educational programming in a 60-year old building where the infrastructure like mechanicasl, heating and ventilation is failing. To address that situation, the School Committee began a process more than a year ago under the guidelines of the Massachusetts School Building Assistance (MSBA). Under this process, the state provides funding for a certain percentage of the total cost.
     To qualify for that funding, the School District must adhere to certain deadlines and timelines. While the viral pandemic has thrown financial uncertainty into the process, it does not allow the School District to postpone
or delay the deadlines within this process. Gilbert said she understands that the cost of building any new school building is substantial but noted there is an opportunity for Groton taxpayers to mitigate some of the tax burdens of building a new school. 
     Gilbert stated, “The Groton community should be aware that the debt of Surrenden Farms is coming off the books this year. Our town now has an unrestricted opportunity to prioritize how our tax money is spent to help manage the tax burden of this project...I encourage Groton taxpayers to inquire with their municipal leaders as we approach future funding discussions pertaining to this project and how we can help mitigate the expense for taxpayers.
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