Peabody won't be invited into the Mass. School Building Authority's model school program after all for construction of a new Higgins Middle School, according to city officials.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt says the city, instead, will pursue a custom-designed school with the same team that has been working on the project for the past two years. The custom option is also projected to cost about $90 million, which is $3 million more than what a model school would be.
The MSBA's board of directors voted this past July to authorize Peabody to build a new state-of-the-art middle school, but did not determine at that time which option the city should pursue.
The city's School Building Committee met last Thursday to begin working toward the final package that will be submitted to the MSBA for approval this spring. Bettencourt said the local committee will meet again in early December.
He said the goal is to file the final design, budget and project schedule with the MSBA by Feb. 15 for its March board of directors meeting. That's the "big meeting" at which Peabody will either get a green light to move toward construction or head back to the drawing board again.
"As every meeting goes on, we're getting closer and closer to a new middle school, so I'm excited," said Bettencourt Tuesday night, updating School Committee members on the project.
And he's not expecting any late surprises at this juncture.
"We anticipate [the final project] will look very close to what was presented in the summer to the public," Bettencourt told Peabody Patch.
According to Bettencourt, the MSBA ultimately voted against inviting Peabody into the model school program essentially because there is no model middle school to use as a baseline, and the fact that the Higgins is the largest middle school in the state doesn't help.
In light of those facts, he said, the city asked the MSBA to evaluate the project as if it were a high school project, but again the site and grade cluster format for a middle school did not fit the model school program.
While the apparent assertion is that there is no model middle school, the MSBA does in fact list Lynnfield Middle School and the combined middle and high school campuses in Ipswich and for Manchester-Essex as board-approved model projects. All three of those schools, however, have smaller enrollments than the Higgins does.
A big advantage of the model school program is the guarantee of a higher reimbursement rate -- 5 points -- along with the lower projected cost, but Bettencourt says the final cost on a custom school should be relatively close anyway.
"We intend to go for every percentage point," he said, adding that the city will still be able to pursue a variety of additional points for a comprehensive facility maintenance plan, green construction and other features. "We can come close on reimbursements."
The tentative outlook is for a new school to be ready for students in the fall of 2016.
The conceptual plans look at erecting a new three-story school on athletic fields next to the Higgins, which would resolve many of the longstanding interior building issues, as well as the exterior ones in the rambling structure, which was built in 1964 as a high school.
The new school would also be much more energy efficient, contain new science labs and better access to technology.