New Concord Middle School Design Community Q&A Meetings Booked

CONCORD, NH — The Concord School District SAU 8 Board of Education and the New Middle School Construction Committee will hold “preliminary design” meetings and a work session on cost estimates this month. There will also be a special board meeting in mid-July to “set a cap on the middle school project.”

Preliminary design meetings, announced as a “Community Q&A,” will be held on Tuesday, June 11 at 6 p.m. at Mill Brook Primary School and on Tuesday, June 18 at 6 p.m. in the Christa McAuliffe Auditorium at Concord High School. The School Committee and Building Committee will hold a work session to review cost estimates on Thursday, June 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the district office meeting room. A special School Committee meeting will be held to set the cap for the middle school construction project.

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Despite opposition to the project and to the realization of the project in East Concord, the district and the planning committee have met intensively to agree to a January 2026 start of construction and a planned opening in summer 2028. The district estimates a “total project cost” of between $136 million and $166 million, although this cost does not include state aid or interest on the debt.

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Everyone involved has tinkered around the boundaries to find savings—they've reduced the size of the gymnasium ($1.2 million); reduced the size of the proposed 900-seat auditorium to 400 to 600 seats ($1.1 to $1.8 million in cost savings) or even removed the auditorium entirely ($6 million); scrapped a proposal for ground-cover solar panels ($4 million); and skimped on installing athletic fields. At the same time, the building committee has added a nearly $1 million hybrid geothermal heat pump and a $3.7 million outdoor ramp to the second floor of the massive three-story building—the proposal is nearly a third larger than the current middle school, despite declining enrollment—and spent more than $675,000 on a snow-melting system.

In an email Saturday, school board member Kathleen Murphy said that over the next six weeks, “costs will be further refined and the board will make decisions on key cost drivers such as the size and scope of the auditorium, gymnasium and multi-purpose rooms, as well as the heating and ventilation systems.”

All documents related to the new Concord Middle School project can be found here. The latest financial estimates can be found here.

Finance for car sellers

Even though building a school is not a consumer good, the cost to the taxpayer must be considered with the same caution as buying a car.

For example, many salespeople will reference the monthly lease cost or payment for a new or used vehicle, but won't show the customer what they're actually paying for the car. A vehicle purchased with $20,000 financed at 5 percent will offer a monthly payment of $377 for 60 months, but the actual cost of the vehicle is $22,645. If the same vehicle is financed for three years at the same interest rate, the monthly payment will be higher ($599), but the final price will be lower ($21,579). The customer will have paid about $1,000 more for the same vehicle at the lower monthly payment. Leases are even worse because they include upfront costs and monthly payments, and you don't even own the vehicle at the end of the lease (though they can sometimes offer tax benefits).

The Concord School District and its board have rarely discussed the actual final cost when planning construction and other projects over the past two decades – they only talk about the monthly payments or the amount financed. Some media outlets have not questioned this in the past.

For example, many people in Concord still believe that the elementary school consolidation cost “only” $28 million or $46 million, depending on what the newspaper published before the buildings were consolidated, when the actual total cost of the project was $90.8 million. The project also demolished several perfectly intact historic buildings. It took the local newspaper until 2012—years after the project was already approved—to give the correct final cost. The city is still paying for this project and will continue to do so through 2041. Taxpayers were also promised by previous boards that there would be no middle school until the elementary school consolidation bond was paid off.

Last week, the district ran through three possible funding scenarios — one with no state aid, one with state aid, and one with state aid and a raid on the district's “facilities trust fund,” which is essentially money set aside in a trust fund after previous project bonds expire, rather than cutting property taxes like every other municipality in the state must do (Concord has an autonomous school board with its own taxing authority that is not under the purview of a town hall, city council or mayor).

The first financial scenario assumes no state subsidies and county property taxpayers cover the entire $136 million to $166 million cost. With interest payments based on a 4 percent loan ranging from $98 million to $119 million, the total cost of the project would be between $234 million and $285 million. The county estimates the property tax impact to be about $1.60 to $2.09 per thousand for 30 years. For a home with a taxable value of $350,000, that represents a property tax increase of $560 to $732 in the first year.

In the second scenario, the state would pay 40 percent of the “eligible costs.” An auditorium, for example, would not be paid for by the state, but construction of classrooms would be. The state support, estimated at about $49 million, reduces the district's project costs to $88 million to $118 million. The final cost, including interest, would be $200 million to $252 million. The tax burden for property taxpayers on a $350,000 home would range from 82 cents to $1.31 per thousand, or $280 to $455 in the first year.

The third proposal would use the county's trust fund to “mitigate the tax burden,” although the latest documents do not provide specific information on how much county taxpayers have been overtaxed in past decades. It assumes the same level of state aid and project costs, but significantly reduces the tax burden to 9 to 59 cents per thousand per year, or $32 to $207 per year for the first year on a $350,000 home. With interest, the final cost would still be in the $200 million to $252 million range.

These amounts would be on top of the already historically high property taxes Concord residents must pay, including the highest education tax rate in nearly 30 years, even as the district receives millions more in state aid.

The latest estimated cost to repair the current Rundlett Middle School was in the range of $8 to $10 million.

In addition, despite declining enrollment and potential savings to taxpayers in operating and construction costs, there appears to be no effort to merge the Concord School District with the Merrimack Valley School District.

Concord NH Patch submitted several questions to the school district seeking clarification on some financial issues – including how much money is available in the facility's trust fund, expected or potential interest rates and debt repayment amounts. I will update this story once the questions are answered.

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Anna Harden

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