One seventh-grader and two grandparents on Wednesday night joined dozens of fellow New Canaanites, most of whom identified themselves as tax-paying parents, in voicing support for a proposed renovation and expansion of Saxe Middle School during a public hearing at Town Hall.
More than 200 residents packed into a standing-room-only meeting room to address the Town Council, applauding fellow supporters who took to the podium (see a list of sound bites below) to urge the legislative body to approve a proposed $18.6 million project.
During a regular meeting that followed the hearing, the Town Council received an updated presentation from the Saxe Building Committee—including enrollment projections that are driving a space crunch at the middle school, and reasons for doing the full project now rather than in pieces—and four councilmen came out publicly in favor of it.
Councilmen asked just how much the full project would cost individual taxpayers annually (a $148-per-taxable-account figure, based on a bond issuance at 3 percent interest over 20 years, is different from figures released earlier this year), whether the proposed build-out addresses future Special Ed space needs (yes, though a compromise will need to be found elsewhere within Saxe), whether long-term enrollment is expected to dip again (enrollment in grades 5 to 8 is expected to exceed 1,300 even 10 years from now) and how a request for plans on phased-in building project would affect the agreement with the architects (there will be additional costs) as well as the overall project’s cost.
Building Committee Chairman Penny Rashin said if just the auditorium was renovated now, it would cost $2.1 million more in the short term to finish the other pieces, and $3.5 million more if the town waited three years (though the second figure could qualify New Canaan for higher state reimbursement).
While agreeing to provide a more detailed breakdown of costs in a phased project to the Board of Finance at a critical Nov. 10 meeting, Rashin said: “If you split the project, you are not meeting the critical student needs in the music and academic areas, and you are just pushing that off for the students that are here and students who are shortly to come.”’
Town Council Secretary Kathleen Corbet said the group received more than 150 messages from residents on both sides of funding the Saxe project, including many who said that, even if waiting to start work on an addition didn’t increase costs at all, “it really is time” to do the project.
“These people want it now,” Corbet said.
Saying it was important for the electorate to know where people stood, she came out publicly in favor of the Building Committee’s proposal. So did Councilmen Tucker Murphy—though her term will end prior to the group’s next meeting—Bill Walbert (a member of the committee, along with Councilman Roger Williams, who was unwell and not in attendance), Sven Englund and Joe Paladino.
Paladino said: “I moved to this town for many of the same reasons that you folks did, and also my wife told me we were moving to New Canaan. But the thing that brought us here was the school system, and I will tell you this, and it’s a very personal thing and I asked my son and he said, ‘Dad, you can talk about whatever you want.’ But there was a child that had mild and some a little bit beyond mild disabilities when he came into the middle school and then through the high school. And he’s a third-year engineering student, currently, in college. So it didn’t happen by chance. It happened because we have a tremendous, tremendous school system, and I will support the project. I wish there was some way to reduce this because, when I look at it, I have had three children in the school system. I’m not paying $58,000 or $59,000 in real estate taxes, so some of my neighbors were subsidizing the cost when my children went here. So now I have a high school senior, and I am going to be very proud to pay for someone else’s children to be in this, because I don’t think many people benefitted more than I did. So, thank you to the school system.”
A Democratic candidate seeking re-election to the Town Council, Paladino added with a smile: “And I did not do that for votes, because I could be watching a Mets game.”
Here are some sound bites from the public hearing that preceded the regular Town Council meeting:
- Diane Master (town resident, senior, adult children in New Canaan and three grandsons in the schools, “none of whom would be affected by the decision on Saxe”): “I know many seniors are on fixed incomes. I think when we discuss the costs, it seems that it is an average of about $150 per year per family. For those seniors who are in less expensive housing, I think it will probably be less. I don’t think that’s an extraordinary sacrifice for seniors to make to keep the quality of life in this community.”
- Megan Lydon (current seventh-grader at Saxe Middle School): “Kids are everywhere and it is hard to move around and get to class on time. On average, I have about 27 kids in all of my classes. When there are that many kids in a classroom, it makes it difficult for that one teacher to listen to what we have to say and answer our questions. This means that a lot of us do not get to participate in class discussions and that a lot of the time, our questions cannot get answered.”
- David Dunn (father of three kids in the schools, two at East and one at Saxe): “I am concerned, I think rightly so, that we will impair—collectively impair—the [educational] compact if we abdicate our responsibility to the infrastructure.”
- Michelle Orr (mother of three boys in New Canaan): “I put together a group on Facebook that has 378 families now that support this project.”
- Bill Jennings (resident for 37 years, raised three kids in New Canaan, daughter and son-in-law here with kids in system): “I have read some of the current debate that you all are having in terms of whether the school board should have presented more alternatives, and I would just say that all of this stuff is tough. I think they probably did a good job. We are where we are. We need to fix a problem and I think should get on with fixing it.”
- Greg Ethridge (in New Canaan for two years, two kids in the elementary schools): “This debate is about town priorities and balancing the residents’ needs with raising taxes. Debate can be healthy, but it’s not an excuse to either ignore this problem or prioritize other capital projects ahead of Saxe. Before tonight, I had never set foot in this $18 million building. Maybe other residents spend more time here, but I doubt many residents spend 100 percent of their days in this building. We have 1,327 kids that are in an overcrowded school every day, all day.”
- Jane Himmel (an empty nester): “The community supported my family. It’s now time for us to support the next generation … I am the parent of a former [Special Ed] student, and I can tell you that if my son had had to take [instruction] in a hallway, that would have been stigmatizing and embarrassing.”
- Katie Owsley (co-president of Saxe PTC): “The fact that the Saxe expansion was not previously on the capital projects schedule is not a reason, in and of itself, to dismiss or delay the project. Would it have been advantageous to have it on your schedule sooner? Certainly. Should that be a criteria for dismissing the project? Certainly not.”
- John Harrison (has lived in New Canaan for more than 11 years, kids at Saxe and South): “A reputation for excellence is fragile, and therefore must be handled with care by all of us. Especially at moments that matter most, like right now.”
- Arnold Karp (New Canaanite, kids out of NCPS now): “I always feel badly about tax burden. On the other hand, I think it is something that we can afford and get done.”
- Elyse Pitts (resident 10 years, moved here for public schools while pregnant with first child): “My message is simple and short: Other projects are short-sighted, the schools are not. It might not affect us today that Saxe is busting at the seams, but it will three to five years from now. Imagine if the future me, or the future anyone sitting in this room drove through here three years from now, drove through here with their first child, seeing pods on the front lawn of Saxe. I would turn right around and go directly to Darien or Westport.”
- Christine Yang (kids in public schools): “We are not talking about classrooms of the future here. The future is now. We are already overcrowded. We are not looking to give every kid an iPad. These are classrooms that are needed. Needed now.”
- Steve Eno (resident for five years, daughters at West and at NCHS): “I don’t think there is any one person in town who doesn’t say we need to have a working auditorium in the middle school.”
- Jeremy Saunders (moved to New Canaan three years ago): “I don’t want to look back in 15, 20 years and say we dropped the ball.”
- Jennifer Murphy (lived in New Canaan 14 years, four kids in the public schools): “There is nowhere else to put the 5th grade or the 8th grade.”
- Karl Schimmeck (nine years in New Canaan, three years): “We moved here for the schools.”
- Karen Campe (lived here 15 years, one son at Saxe and one at NCHS): “Strong support of the schools is the best bolster to property values in the town tax base. When families look to move to Fairifeld County, they look for the best schools they can find.”
- Amy Sorensen (town resident, three children, including one at Saxe): “It’s a big project. It’s a lot of money. But I think it’s a town that can shoulder the burden and come up with the money. I think we have the resources.”
- Lauren Nussbaum (New Canaanite, three daughters, ages 5, 2 and 10 months): “My husband, like many men and women in this room, gets on that train every day and commutes into the city so that I can stay here and be with our girls full-time. I’m so grateful to him for that, and I’m so grateful to the village that is in this room, of men and women, who help me raise my daughters. I ask you: Let’s all pull together as a community. Let’s continue to look after each other by supporting this expansion plan. It doesn’t matter if you’re 85, 45, 25 or 5: A great public school facility is going to create and continue to support one of the most world-class public school systems in this country.”
- Melissa Coffman (resident for five years): “Why are we having this debate? Why is this a question? What do we gain by not doing this? It feels like we’re going to lose more than we gain, because the alternatives are horrible.”
- David Norton (resident for 15 years): “This community is amazing. We all love it. We need to do this expansion. End of issue. Let’s just get it done.”
- Maria Weingarten (New Canaanite): “I think the Board of Finance used to do something like this, they had public hearings as well, but they don’t now, which is a real shame, because it is our first selectman is chairman of that and all the appointed Board of Finance that we don’t get to vote on, and why don’t they have to hear what people in the room have to say as well?”