Still More Work for School Building Committee Before Vote on Higgins

The momentum is building toward a vote, but there's still more legwork for the project design team before a preliminary design is ready to submit to the MSBA.

At this point, it’s mainly about dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the Higgins School Building Committee appear to uniformly support building a new middle school at this time, the only obstacle is that they have to justify every nut and bolt to satisfy state education officials, or so it seems. So technically, the question of whether the Higgins will see a is still up for debate.

After meeting with the Mass. School Building Authority two weeks ago, the firm managing the school project – Daedalus – explained to committee members that the MSBA needs to see a highly detailed “preferred option” for the school, as well as detailed versions of the other options that were considered, such as renovation with an addition.

Essentially, the state wants to know they fully explored every option.

The renovation plan, however, does not really require any further work, according to Daedalus Projects Inc. Principal Richard Marks – the main focus is now on fleshing out preliminary design details for a customized new building.

“This is one of the biggest projects the city has seen in decades [and] we want to make sure we do it right,” said Bettencourt.

Daedalus and the project architect, DiNisco Design, expect to have more details on what a custom school would look like for today’s committee meeting. The group will meet at 4:30 p.m. in the conference room at the .

Plans and moving forward

would create two separate structures connected by main hallways: a self-contained academic wing and administrative offices in the front along with common-use areas (the gym and cafeteria, for example) and the main entrance. There could be one or two exterior courtyards separating the two wings and the committee has a number of options to arrange interior layout in terms of the gym, cafeteria, kitchen, library, etc.

The entire building would be three stories, have two elevators and air-conditioning, and sit on ball fields adjacent to the existing school, which was built in 1964.

The current schedule is to submit feasibility plans with a preferred option to the MSBA for its July board of directors meeting. In order to accomplish that, a draft form of the designs, explanations, project schedule, analysis of possible phasing costs and needs and a detailed cost comparison between each option will be brought back to the building committee for a vote.

The plan was to have that information for today’s meeting and then meet again in two weeks to take a vote. Afterward, the plan would be presented on an informational basis to a joint session of the full School Committee and City Council likely in late April or May. The MSBA needs to receive it six weeks out from its board meeting.

The MSBA will then take a look at the preferred option chosen by the community, along with the options to renovate and build either a new custom or model school.

Custom design or model school

If the city decides to enter the model school program, a whole new set of designs will be used for the project; however, because DeNisco Design is not certified by the state for the model school program. Peabody will also only get a look at model school designs after it enters the program.

An ironic hitch, however, is that there is no model middle school design. What the MSBA is doing, according to Marks, is adapting model high school designs – one example is the new middle school in Hingham.

If Peabody decides to go with a custom school design, while more expensive, local officials will have greater control over certain features, such as the exact configuration of the gymnasium and cafeteria. The committee is also trying to determine whether the MSBA funds will pay for an auditorium.

The preliminary estimate for a model school is $82.5 million and the city is responsible for about $36 million, while a custom school could cost $84.2 million with the city picking up $40 million.

Marks also said that by building a new school on adjacent ball fields, which would allow students to stay put until it was finished, there’s not so much concern to start construction while school is out for the summer in 2013 – it could be pushed off until the fall if need be align with the typical construction season.

Bettencourt had said that after meeting with the MSBA again, he realized he let his excitement get the best of him and spoke too prematurely about putting the Higgins project to a vote two weeks ago. There was still a lot of legwork for the project design team to finish first before submitting a formal proposal to the MSBA.

Bettencourt has clearly indicated he favors building a new school, given the short amount of money separating the two options.

Bettencourt said he sees two separate decisions the committee has to make: first to finally decide with the proper information in place whether the city is going to renovate and add on to the existing structure or build new. And then at that point, decide whether to enter the model school program or build a custom school.

He said the cost will certainly be a factor in the second choice as well, but feels it’s still too early to make that decision.

The committee also discussed creating a website devoted to the building project with the express purpose of sharing any and all information with the public. Bettencourt said Wednesday that, despite hopes to the contrary, the website is not ready yet.

Bettencourt said that once the concrete options are out there, he does plan to hold community outreach meetings in different areas of the city to allow parents and others to see the plans and offer input.

He said his office has been receiving lots of questions on the project thus far.

“People are paying close attention to this,” he said.


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