The Town Council on Monday night unanimously approved the proposed $18.6 million building project at Saxe Middle School, a widely anticipated vote that officially kickstarts a timetable that should see construction start in June and finish by the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The 12-0 vote will trigger a bond issuance to pay for a project that has galvanized many parents, students, teachers and other advocates who have said the renovation and expansion of Saxe are needed to accommodate “slow and steady” growth that’s already overburdening the Farm Road school.
Town Council Vice Chairman Steve Karl said he was “very proud” of New Canaan for undergoing the lengthy and in-depth process of studying the project and indebted to the “amazing committee of volunteers” on the Saxe Building Committee, including Chairman Penny Rashin and Jim Beall.
“Through the meetings and approvals, you are talking about Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, Board of Ed, Planning & Zoning, Town Council—you start talking about those meetings and then the great meetings we have had with the public outpouring and input into this project, and as a community that’s what you want,” Karl told about 25 people gathered in the Town Meeting Room for the council’s special meeting. “You want people involved. You want people to have their voice heard and the whole process is something that I think we can really be proud of. So thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The project includes the renovation of the 58-year-old auditorium at Saxe, which closed last December after officials found PCBs in its paint—additional contaminants turned up during remediation—as well as a “right-sizing” of music rooms that a building committee immediately identified as a need, and a 12-room addition that emerged a few months later to address rapidly rising enrollment at the overcrowded middle school.
New Canaan’s Jennifer Murphy in addressing the recently re-formed Town Council—she was one of two residents to do so at the meeting—said that “the citizens of New Canaan have made it abundantly clear that they want the project to happen.”
“A month ago, several candidates were either elected or not elected to this Town Council, and a key factor in this election and a key factor in whether or not they are here today was their position on the Saxe expansion,” Murphy said.
The Nov. 10 Board of Finance vote had been viewed as the major hurdle for advocates of the project, and that group voted 8-0 in favor of it following a detailed look at financial implications for the town.
New Canaan resident Michael Nowacki, identifying himself as head of the New Canaan Taxpayers Alliance, said he thought the Town Council’s vote should be postponed because of what he called conflicting numbers about enrollment projections at the schools. Specifically, Nowacki said that actual enrollment at the elementary schools is down 37 students year-over-year “from what has been previously reported to this group.” (Note: The Board of Ed in a publicly available presentation from Nov. 9—see page 7 of the “Staffing and Enrollment Presentation” here—did note that its final numbers show elementary school figures 37 students under what had been projected, though overall enrollment rose by six students and record-high kindergarten figures are anticipated for next year.)
Rashin delivered a short presentation about the project—familiar by now to the councilmen, who in turn asked her about plans for the servery in the cafeteria (a study will be done late next year with a specific plan to follow), the timing of benefits to Saxe (not until the spring of 2017 when the auditorium is done), money within the projected $18.6 million that could come back to the town ($2.4 million, conservatively, from the state based on a 20 percent reimbursement rate, plus the possibility of not using funds set aside as contingencies), and whether parents have been brought in to discuss what’s planned for the auditorium (not yet, they’re waiting to see what happens with the overall project).