SARATOGA SPRINGS — Future generations of Saratoga Springs High School students may talk about meeting by the staircase – the big one by the front entrance – if school district voters on Dec. 8 approve a $129.7 million proposed capital project.
The plan, which includes classroom renovations and safety improvements at all of the district’s eight school buildings, calls for sweeping work to the district’s physical and technological infrastructure with upgrades to roofs, ceilings, heating and cooling units, and data and network systems.
About 8 percent of the overall cost would pay for consistently-designed secure entrances at each of the schools, as well as improvements to camera systems and the district’s visitor management system.
The extensive renovation work would also extend into classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, locker rooms, cafeterias and kitchens and establish new spaces to allow for a variety of academic uses and community access.
The cafeteria at Maple Avenue Middle School would be expanded and designed to double as a large community space, part of a larger redesign of the school’s entire front entrance. The dated library at Geyser Road Elementary will receive a full renovation. A new “learning staircase” will be constructed inside the front entrance of the high school, doubling as a gathering space for students to work, eat and socialize.
“We heard from our kids … they want to have an opportunity for a central gathering space,” schools Superintendent Michael Patton said of the planned staircase, explaining how it would be modeled on college facilities where large staircases are also used as space for class lessons and presentations, group meetings and more.
But not all classrooms will see renovation under the plan; some will have to wait for funding from subsequent projects.
The Dec. 8 capital project vote follows the 2018 public approval of a $15.5 million project focused on improvements to the district’s athletic fields and outdoor spaces, as well as public parks owned by the district and maintained by the city. Work on that project is nearly complete, and district and city officials planned a ribbon cutting at East Side Recreation Park on Friday, where the latest project funded renovations to the park’s baseball field, field house and courts.
Planning for the $130 million project, which the district is referring to as its “Legacy Project,” has been in the works since 2016, and a referendum vote was originally planned to coincide with the May 2020 budget vote. But just as the district was preparing to ramp up communications ahead of the May vote, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school board to delay the vote to the fall. District officials said they decided on the December referendum date so that the county elections office would have enough time to prepare the district voting machines after the November election.
On Dec. 8, the district plans to host polling sites from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at each of the six elementary schools and also offers an absentee option. In the meantime, district officials have planned a series of meetings and information sessions over the coming weeks. The first of the virtual information sessions is scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and can be accessed through the district’s website.
While district officials said they planned to detail the funding breakdown in more detail ahead of the December vote, Patton said the project aims to distribute improvements equitably across schools, balancing safety, infrastructure and classroom improvements costs.
The project would establish consistent “secure vestibules” at the entrance of each school. The vestibules are designed so that visitors must sign in with school staff in the vestibule before being allowed through a second set of doors into the school. The project will also fund upgrades to the visitor management system at each school entrance, creating consistent entry protocols and systems at each school.
“So if you are entering Dorothy Nolan it’s that same process as if you are entering Caroline,” said Bill McMordie of Saratoga Project Management, which is managing the project along with Mosaic Architects, during a late-September presentation to the school board.
The classroom upgrades would serve as a new baseline for learning spaces in the district and include include flexible furniture, new lighting and improved presentation technology.
“We’ll provide all new finishes, new floor, new ceiling, new lighting… new everything to provide this 21st century learning space,” John Onderdonk, of Mosaic, said at the September board meeting.
An advisory committee of around 60 people that met regularly throughout 2019 recommended renovations to school bathrooms, among other proposals, and helped prioritize building needs as the project was developed.
District officials said if approved by voters construction would begin around June 2022 and last through September 2028 as work at schools is phased over time and concentrated into nights and summers. Patton said he didn’t expect construction to cause disruptions that would displace students from schools or necessitate the use of temporary classroom units.
Since the finances of the project are designed to replace the district’s expiring debts with the debt of the new project, district officials said the project will have no additional tax impact on district residents. Tim Hilker, the district’s business official, told the school board in September that if the district did not replace the soon-to-expire debt the district’s tax levy limit would drop, limiting its ability to raise funds through local taxes. The project – around $80 million of which would qualify for state funding – would also draw down around $7.5 million in capital reserve funds set aside in recent years.
“We have the funding in our current budget to be able to sustain this project without going out to the taxpayers and asking them to fund this with additional tax dollars,” Hilker said at the September board meeting.