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Public Gets First Look at Conceptual Plans for New Middle School

Over the life of a 25-year bond, taxpayers would pick up $102 more each on average, according to present financial projections. That's just about $20 more than what it would cost under a renovation and addition plan.

The public got its first look at conceptual plans for a new middle school Tuesday at two forums held by Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the Higgins School Building Committee.

[You can also find a copy of the presentation in .PDF form attached to this article. Make sure to use the zoom tools on the bottom of the screen if you need to get a closer look.]

In total, about two dozen residents showed up for the presentations between an afternoon session at and an evening session at the . No major objections or concerns were raised, according to Beverley Griffin Dunne, who is a co-chair for the committee.

She said the two or three individuals who did speak at the later meeting asked about state reimbursement on the project and environmental construction certification.

"We've been working hard for many years...we're getting to the point, I think, where things can happen," Bettencourt said, noting the process has spanned several years.

"I think the city deserves a new school, our kids need a new school...and I will fight for it every step of the way," he said.

Bettencourt, Higgins Principal Todd Bucey, the project design team, Dunne and interim superintendent Herb Levine rehashed the history of the project, the current issues within the school and pros and cons for renovation versus a new building.

Finance Director Patricia Schaffer ran through the actual numbers at this stage between the two options and the potential burden on taxpayers.

The renovation/addition, without factoring in at least $4.5 million to phase construction and shuffle students and offices around, is now projected at $80.7 million at 56 percent reimbursement by the MSBA, which leaves the city with $35.6 million. A new school, which would not require any phasing, is projected at $88.8 million with 53 percent reimbursement and $41.6 million for the city share.

What that would mean for taxpayers on a 25-year bond with current interest rates and 1 percent growth, Schaffer said, is an average of $88 per year for the first option for the life of the debt versus an average of $102 per year for a new school.

Just as he had to see the conditions first hand, Bucey led his audience on a visual tour of the problems he and his staff face daily in the building to educate 1,409 students.

Bucey outlined severe buliding deficiencies, safety and accessibility issues and a lack of educational program support -- the building was opened in 1966 as a high school and is now not only the largest middle school in the state, but the 11th largest school building of any kind in Massachusetts.

"Many, if not all of the characteristics of a high school in the 1960s do not pertain to a middle school in 2012," Bucey said.

The present challenges include an ineffecient layout of the building, some grade clusters spread far apart, oversized and undersized classrooms, lack of science labs and proper equipment, lack of built-in technology, broken lockers, students' lockers on the floor below their classrooms, broken bleachers, disability compliance issues, ineffecient heating and cooling, old boilers that are failing, poor lighting, you name it.

In the library, he said, that due to a fire in 1976 and several years of deterioriation, the space is "scaldingly hot" in the summer and "freezing" in the winter, in addition to a leaky roof and substandard built-in support for technology.

In the gym, much of the bleacher seating is broken and unsafe, and hazardous to staff to open them up, while the cafeteria is severely undersized for the student population. There's also a divider wall that doesn't function properly.

"If it were to close, I don't think we'd ever be able to get it open again," Bucey said.

A new school would be three floors, more energy efficient, have a smaller footprint, provide dedicated science labs, equipment and technology in every classroom, have classrooms designed appropriate for their use, house grades on separate floors and simply cut down on all the time students now spend crossing hallways to get to and from classes or activities. Even traffic flow around the building would make sense.

The projected enrollment for a new school approved by the MSBA is 1,340 students.

Bettencourt noted the city first submitted a Statement of Interest to the MSBA in 2006, which recognized the building was in fair to poor condition, and years of study and discussion began on what the best course of action would be for the school. It wasn't until late last year that to a renovation and addition.

"The numbers for a new school were awfully close to a renovation," he said, noting that added "below the line" costs even further close that gap and convinced him to shift focus to new construction from that point on.

Levine, who strongly supports building a new school, briefly detailed the $4.5 million at least that the district would have to absorb without state reimbursement in order to phase construction in any renovation of the existing school.

Those costs would entail renovating the Kiley School to hold a sixth grade academy, moving the vocational students out of the Higgins temporarily until the new regional voke is built, busing all those students and finding a new home for the central administrative offices.

During Levine's time as superintendent in Salem, he said, the district built two brand new schools and renovated two other elementary schools as well as the high school.

He said that after ripping up the flooring in one school, the old piping, which was no longer up to code, was exposed and therefore had to be completely replaced.

"When you start opening up walls, floors, ceilings, especially in a building 50 years old, you never know what you're going to find," Levine said.

He added that he went to "great lengths" to keep students away from the construction zones in those projects that required phasing, even so far as to move an entire elementary school into the first floor of the high school.

The building committee will now make a similar presentation before a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee on May 3 and a seek a vote in favor of submitting a new school proposal to the MSBA.

The building committee will meet again May 10 and submit its proposal to the MSBA's board of directors by June 6 for a July 25 meeting.

The MSBA will make the determination of whether to invite Peabody into its model school program, which could also add five more percentage points to reimbursement.

The presentation given Tuesday is now also available online on a new website devoted to the building project. Dunne said that Peabody Access aired the evening session live and will be showing re-runs.

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