The board of directors for the Mass. School Building Authority unanimously voted Wednesday to authorize Peabody to build a new state-of-the-art middle school, officially stamping that option as the best solution for the Higgins School and middle school education in Peabody.
The project now heads into a schematic design phase where more of the specific details on design, scope, budget and scheduling will be hashed out between the MSBA and Peabody officials in the coming months. 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 , 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.
“Our commitment to working with Peabody officials to determine the best solution for the is ironclad, and the advancement to schematic design represents another solid step forward,” said state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who chairs the board.
“I toured the Higgins School this past spring, and I’ve seen firsthand the dedication of its teachers, administrators and students. This school is a top priority for the MSBA, and it will get built,” Grossman said.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt held a press conference at his office with city officials later Wednesday afternoon to announce the news.
"During my campaign I voiced my strong preference for a new Higgins. I felt strongly that the new school option made the most sense not only from an educational standpoint, but also from an economic one," Bettencourt said.
"Today's vote sends a clear signal that the MSBA agrees with this assessment and is willing to partner with the city of Peabody to build a new facility befitting our shared commitment to quality public education and fiscal responsibility," he said.
The schematic design phase may last for the next six to 12 months and Bettencourt says the project team will be meeting with the MSBA again in a few weeks to begin that process.
Initially, however, he expects talks to deal with whether the MSBA believes the project is a good fit for its model school program, which would save the city a few million dollars and expedite the entire process. He said the MSBA is actually in the midst of reviewing that overall program.
"Ultimately they will decide, with our input, if a model school is the best option for us," said Bettencourt. The Higgins would be the first model middle school in the state.
The MSBA has committed to reimbursing the city for 54 percent of the cost and that number could increase if the city incorporates such things as green designs and a comprehensive maintenance plan. A model school would also increase the reimbursement rate.
The estimated cost for the new school is approximately $90 million and the city would bear about $42 million. A renovation and addition would cost about $81 million with the city picking up about $36 million.
If the the MSBA does invite Peabody to enter its model school program, the estimate is that a new school would then cost $87 million overall with the city picking up $37 million.
Bettencourt said the project team will be looking at adding a new athletic complex once the existing school is torn down and the MSBA will reimburse the city for some of that cost, although the MSBA says it won't cover a .
While there has only been from MSBA officials and Grossman for Peabody to submit a new school proposal instead of a major renovation project at the Higgins, and likewise with full support from Peabody's elected officials and the public, Bettencourt said Wednesday's vote was still a big one.
"This was the moment it was decided the city of Peabody is getting a new middle school," he said, still excited at the prospect. It also hits another major milestone in a project that began five years ago.
A final feasibility proposal was submitted to the MSBA in June and the Higgins School Building Committee as the preferred option for the Higgins.
Bettencourt said he was confident the decision would come through, given the strong support from all corners and also because the MSBA did not express any major concerns with the city's plans.
He said the city was contacted by the MSBA recently with some questions on educational points, such as why grade levels would be separated over three floors instead of all together on one level. School officials have said three floors is less disruptive for students within grade clusters and is more conducive to that small community learning environment.
Bettencourt said the MSBA seemed to be satisfied with the city's response and has already thoroughly reviewed each aspect of the project.
"I think it's going to be great," said School Committee member Beverley Griffin Dunne, who chairs the local building committee for the project. Dunne said the new school would be designed for a middle school educational program, unlike the current building.
"We've cobbled together a lot of things and children do have access to technology, but not at the level they will in a new school," Dunne said, explaining some of the existing building issues with layout, heating, energy efficiency, outdated utility systems and access for handicapped students.
Bettencourt said he attended the morning board meeting in Boston with Dunne, School Superintendent Joe Mastrocola, city Finance Director Patti Schaffer, Purchasing Agent Dan Doucette, Bettencourt's chief of staff Chris Ryder and a representative from Daedalus Projects, which is acting as the project manager. Higgins Principal Todd Bucey was away in California and could not attend the meeting.
State Reps. Ted Speliotis and Joyce Spiliotis and a representative from Sen. Fred Berry's office were also there to lend their support, which Bettencourt said has been vital to getting the project to this point.
“I am thankful to Treasurer Grossman, Executive Director McCarthy and the MSBA Board for their thoughtful review of the Higgins. The vote for a new middle school gives Peabody children the most optimum situation for learning. I congratulate Mayor Bettencourt and his team for presenting a strong case for this new school that will shape Peabody’s future,” said Berry in a statement.
Bettencourt also thanked the rest of the local building committee, the City Council and School Committee for their support, "countless" residents who voiced the same and Herb Levine, who strongly advocated for the new school during his time as interim superintendent for the past year.