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After years of downsizing, Ken-Ton weighs new classrooms

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District closed three elementary schools over the past six years as enrollment declined and costs rose.

Now, the district is weighing a $77 million construction project that features work at each of its nine schools – including 16 new elementary school classrooms.

Why is the district proposing the additions at Edison, Hoover and Lindbergh elementary schools? Officials say they need more classrooms as space tightens at the remaining elementary schools.

And, they say, it makes more financial sense to pay the one-time cost of building the classrooms – an expense largely covered by state aid – than for district taxpayers to almost entirely cover the greater ongoing expense of operating an entire school.

"It's much more cost-effective to pay for these new classrooms," said John Brucato, the district's assistant superintendent for finance.

The classroom construction is a piece of the capital project primarily devoted to addressing student safety. Highlights include new pipes to keep lead out of water consumed at fountains and used in food preparation, renovations for more secure building entry points and improved drains that won't trap children at the bottom of swimming pools.

The district and its consultants are putting the final touches on the proposal and are hoping to bring down the price.

The Ken-Ton School Board still needs to vote to send the plan to district residents, who would make the final decision. A public vote could take place as soon as February.

The project grew out of the district's regular planning for its capital needs. Ken-Ton is wrapping up a $29.9 million capital project that was approved by voters in December 2014, Brucato said, so it was a natural time to assess what work should come next.

A group of architects, financial advisers and other consultants, working with district officials, put together the plan that includes work at Ken-Ton's five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools.

Highlights of the project, according to Brucato and the consultants' presentation at the Aug. 6 School Board meeting, include:

  • Installing new copper water pipes to replace aging plumbing in the schools that allowed lead to get into potable water. A 2016 state law required testing for lead at fountains, sinks and other fixtures within all public schools. The district had 1,484 fixtures tested, and 37% of them failed. The district is installing new systems throughout the buildings, including fixtures that weren't flagged for high lead levels, Brucato said. "That's the major piece of this project," he said.
  • Renovating or constructing additions at the nine schools to provide the space needed to process visitors at single entry points in the buildings.
  • Installing new swimming pool drains at some schools to comply with a federal safety law. Known as Baker drains, they prevent children from getting caught by suction and pinned to the bottom of the pool.
  • Replacing at least a portion of the roofs at all district schools with the exception of Holmes Elementary School, which needs a total roof replacement.
  • Reconstructing parking lots and sidewalks and, in some cases, carving out new student drop-off and pick-up lanes for parents to ease congestion during the morning and afternoon rush.
  • Installing updated carbon monoxide detectors at several schools.
  • Creating unisex bathrooms at the high schools and middle schools.

The new classrooms follow the closing of Jefferson Elementary School in 2013 and Hamilton and Roosevelt elementary schools – along with Kenmore Middle School – in 2016, as part of a consolidation meant to address declining enrollment.

Ken-Ton addresses problems of consolidating schools

 

Ken-Ton's enrollment fell 23% between 2008-09 and 2018-19, although Brucato said the student population has leveled off in recent years.

Edison would get four new classrooms and Hoover and Lindbergh each would get six new classrooms, although internal reconfiguration leaves Lindbergh with a net gain of four new rooms.

District officials said science labs, wellness, special education and other programs are taking up classrooms previously used for traditional instruction, driving the need for additional space.

"We're pretty tight on space in those three buildings," Brucato said.

Why build 16 new classrooms instead of just reopening Hamilton Elementary School? Board Vice President Andrew Gianni at the Aug. 6 meeting asked whether the district or its consultants had compared the cost of the two options.

Superintendent Stephen A. Bovino replied it would cost about $2.6 million per year to operate a full elementary school, primarily in staff salaries but also counting heat, electricity and other overhead.

That's a recurring cost that primarily falls on district taxpayers, Bovino and Brucato said. But by including new classroom construction in the capital project, it's a one-time cost that's eligible for state aid – as long as state education officials are convinced of the need for it, officials said.

The project is estimated to cost $76.9 million. However, the architects and other consultants are making refinements to the plan and Brucato said the district wants to get the final cost down to $75 million.

"We do have some tweaking to do," Brucato said.

Sixty-nine percent would be covered by state aid, 13% by a $10 million payment from the district's capital reserves and 18% by taxpayers. As it stands now, the owner of a home in the district with a market value of $100,000 would pay an extra $17 each year to pay off the project debt.

The board still must vote on a study of the project's environmental effect and agree to send the plan to voters. Those board votes could take place in December, with a public vote set for February.

If approved, design work would continue through most of 2020. Construction would start in spring 2021 and last through late 2023.

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