Projections Show Model School Cheaper for City Than Fixing Up Higgins

Cost projections on options for the Higgins Middle School show that building new under the state's model school program is likely cheaper for the city than renovating the 47-year-old building.

Numbers make all the difference.

Last week, members of the committee tasked with directing the middle school building project were finally given some detailed cost projections on all their options, and according to those estimates, building a whole new school may be more cost effective for Peabody.

Using preliminary plans, architects from DiNisco Design Partnership and project manager Daedalus Projects Inc. outlined six options for .

Those projections showed that constructing a new model school could ultimately cost the city just shy of $36 million, well within the upper limits of spending Mayor Michael Bonfanti had indicated the city could afford on the project.

of what the cost comparison woud likely be, as he prepares to leave office at the end of the year.

The entire cost to build new under the Mass. School Building Authority’s program is projected at $82.5 million, but the MSBA would reimburse Peabody at 59.5 percent, rather than the 53.3 percent base the state agency has currently committed to. However, according to the estimates last week, Peabody could likely earn similar additional reimbursement points on most options.

Richard Marks and Christina Opper of Daedalus and Donna DiNisco-Crawford and Gary Ainslie of DiNisco Design explained the differences between the options.

  • New Construction. Should Peabody decide to start from scratch, a three-story structure, using less square footage and footprint space than the existing school, would be built on the adjacent ball fields. Among the features included would be a new library, new cafeteria and auditorium, and administration would have front office space. The MSBA will approve this measure for 1,340 students (currently the enrollment is 1,409 students, however, previous enrollment studies indicate a decline in student enrollment over the next five to 10 years). The MSBA will not participate in financing certain aspects of the project. The threshold for funding participation by MSBA cannot exceed 8 percent of the total cost.

School officials say the obvious advantage is that new construction would have a much longer lifespan and incorporate greater energy and layout efficiencies in contrast to the sprawling structure that exists now, which was originally designed as a high school.

There would also be no need to create a sixth grade academy at the Kiley School nor shuffle central office staff around – work would need to be done at the Kiley in order to accommodate students again anyway. Students would remain in the current building until the projected finish date of 2015.

The timing would account for potential delays in the (vocational students and shops at the Higgins would move to the Danvers campus), which is projected to open in 2014.

School Business Manager David Keniston said DiNisco is not on the MSBA’s list of authorized designers for model schools; Peabody would only get a look at a design once it entered the program.

Peabody officials would then visit other model schools, architects would submit proposals to the city (the MSBA would have to approve the designer selection), and the design and review process would commence.

Keniston said one option discussed along with building a new school is that the old space could be used for that new turf field for high school athletics.

Renovations, additions and other options

If the School Building Committee decided to go, instead, with the plan to gut the 47-year-old structure and put on an addition, the price tag would be $75.5 million, and the city would still pick up about $33 million. The size of the structure would increase slightly and another $2 million would be needed to renovate the Kiley, relocate students, bus them around and move the central office elsewhere.

  • Renovation/Addition. The project would encompass gutting most of the original structure to create three wings for each grade – adding an additional floor on two of the wings, maintaining the three existing gyms, replacing the library that would be moved to another location in the reconfiguration, a new cafeteria and redeveloping the auditorium space. Additionally, there would be frontage created for administration offices. The vocational shops would be demolished, the maintenance plant would be removed and air-conditioning would potentially be added in designated areas to accommodate summer and evening continuing education classes.

The other options presented to the committee on Thursday included a combination of renovation and repair for about $73 million, just making repairs for $67 million (repairs with a small addition would cost about the same) or the last choice: ditch the model school program and build a new custom school for $84.2 million.

A custom school would only likely get a 54.5 percent reimbursement rate from the MSBA, however, and cost the city just over $40 million.

Simply doing repairs, however, would not address any of the educational needs or problems with the layout of the school, but only fix existing building issues, including ADA compliance. 

Several pros and cons were discussed for each option. The major factor weighing on most of the Peabody officials’ minds is the cost.

According to Marks, the MSBA has less risk tolerance and appetite for funding a custom designed school as opposed to a model school design.

If the decision, however, leans towards a full renovation and addition, then there are considerations of how to remove hazardous materials while the school is still operating.

Already, the district has grappled with recent woes during construction at the , where and has resulted in some unrest parents, children and staff.

Next steps for local officials

School officials said the School Building Committee would reconvene in January to take a vote.

The next steps consultants recommended for the Higgins project would be to conduct a full feasibility study, which would then be submitted for review and approval to the MSBA for approval at its May board of directors meeting. Time, according to Marks, is of the essence.

The project plan would be due to the MSBA in early April.

The final decision on which way to go with the project lies with the building committee – no votes are required by the full School Committee or City Council, although Interim Superintendent Herb Levine said a joint session would be set up with both boards in order to gain their support. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for January as well.

The City Council would eventually need to approve any actual funding for the project to go forward if the state signs off on it.

School officials said additional presentations would also be held to gain broader community support.

Mayor Bonfanti says he won’t ask officials to support one option at this point, and instead leave that move to the discretion of incoming Mayor Ted Bettencourt. Bettencourt says that’s a top priority once he’s officially sworn in on Jan. 2.


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