Mayor Michael Bonfanti reassured a small crowd gathered in the auditorium Tuesday night that he and other school leaders are firmly committed to long overdue renovations to the school.
Bonfanti admitted they are “embarrassed” by the state of the Higgins and the lack of simple features, such as classroom windows in many cases. He said the project has taken a lot longer than first anticipated, but despite delays, he now believes a better project will be the end result.
“We need to have patience…but we can do it, we owe it to the kids to fix this school. It’s embarrassing,” he said.
Ken and Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design Partnerships, which is the architect on the project, gave a detailed overview of the structural and design obstacles present in the existing school building along with the three broad options the city has for what to do about them.
The DiNiscos gave a . The firm also worked on the designs for the new Brown and Carroll schools.
Repair, renovate or build?
The Higgins currently holds 1,340 students with about 450 in each class. The three broad options for improvements to the building are:
- Simply repair and upgrade various areas of the building without any structural changes.
- Potentially gut certain portions inside the school to renovate, but without changing the footprint of the building.
- Consider an addition and/or demolishing other areas of the building while making wholesale renovations.
The third alternative is very similar to the one chosen by the and middle school. The DiNisco’s firm was the architect on both of those projects as well.
Ken DiNisco pointed out that each option progressively increases the overall capital cost of the project, but only the last two options can really address existing educational obstacles due to the layout of the building. The first option would not improve the educational component, he said.
Donna DiNisco added that the base reimbursement from the Mass. School Building Authority is 53.3 percent, but that can increase depending on what changes are made or also for comprehensive maintenance plans.
Essentially, the problems are small classroom sizes, lack of a clear traffic flow, no recognizable main entrance, inefficiency in the building layout that affects each grade of students and inadequate means of access throughout the school for anyone with a physical handicap.
Asbestos also needs to be removed from vinyl tiling, crawl spaces and some piping within the building. Additionally, the Community School and vocational programs must also be relocated off-site permanently.
Ken DiNisco described the 47-year-old school, which was first designed with a high school in mind, as mainly a “rambling one-story structure” with some grade changes in various areas where a second story wasn’t built.
“You have to make order out of chaos,” he said.
But lest anyone think the concern was only for the physical building, Ken DiNisco repeatedly stated that final design changes would be heavily weighed by their net educational value. Donna DiNisco added that the MSBA, which has the final say in approving the project, is all about the educational value.
“The MSBA wants to see a sound educational program, otherwise they won’t approve it,” she said. “It’s not just about how big the field house is.”
“Part of this is saying: ‘This is a middle school, what should a middle school be?’” Ken DiNisco said.
Another contentious issue will be the decision of whether to house one grade off-site during the renovations or use portable units. The pros and cons of each were briefly highlighted during the presentation.
City and school leaders say Higgins project crucial
Both mayoral candidates Sean Fitzgerald and Ted Bettencourt attended the meeting, asking questions periodically on the overall project and stressing how critical of a project the Higgins is to overall education in Peabody. During his time as chief of staff to Bonfanti, Fitzgerald worked on drafting the initial Statement of Interest that was submitted to the MSBA.
School Committee members David McGeney, Beverley Griffin Dunne and Ed Charest were also present, along with Ward 3 Councilor Rico Mello.
Dunne echoed sentiments that the current setup of the Higgins isn’t the best to accommodate a middle school. She said she was “thrilled” to be at this stage of planning for the building project.
She also noted that staging the construction in phases would allow work to take place as far from students as possible without creating noise or physical disruption to the school day. Ken DiNisco said the goal would certainly be to remove asbestos over the summer as much as possible and under closer supervision if it had to occur during the school year.
Charest assured those parents who did attend Tuesday’s meeting, most of whom were from the , that the School Committee and other local officials involved in the project would closely scrutinize every detail.
“This is a tangible way to say Peabody does care about education,” McGeney said, adding it can help correct public misperception to the contrary.
“I feel at times in Peabody we’ve let perfect get in the way of doing something good,” he said in reference to undertaking larger projects. He said the community should not talk itself out of this project with such reasoning.
Several Carroll School parents who did attend the meeting said their newer school still has some “major” building issues left over from faulty construction and they worried the same thing could happen at the Higgins.
Dan Doucette, the city’s purchasing agent, and the DiNiscos said that the extensive prequalification process that is now used before accepting construction bids on building projects weeds out most of the disreputable contractors.
The city is not beholden to just accept the lowest bid, but the lowest responsive and responsible bidder.
Another option the city would have, however, is to hire a contractor once preliminary designs are complete to work together on the final design and scheduling. There would be a premium price tag attached, but DiNisco noted only elite contractors are approved to work on public projects in that fashion.
Final details still to come
When the study is complete, any final projected renovation cost will be matched up with what it would likely cost to build new, Ken DiNisco added. He and Bonfanti did point out, however, that to build a new model school under MSBA guidelines would hit the $70-$80 million range.
The current projected cost of $42 million would include renovations, but is still a general estimate at this stage, Ken DiNisco said. His firm and Daedalus Projects Inc., the project manager, need to have the feasibility study completed by Sept. 1 for a selection on which avenue to pursue. Preliminary designs then need to be submitted to the MSBA by November.
With approval in hand, final design and document preparation could take another year, slating actual construction for 2013.
DiNisco said he envisions needing to hold another community meeting or two before September. His firm has already met with the School Building Subcommittee, full School Committee and Higgins staff.
“We do listen [to everyone],” Bonfanti said, but reminded his audience that part of his job and his successor’s will be to work with the School Committee to choose the best solution for Peabody.
“Eventually we do have to make a decision to do the best we can do,” he said, and it’s not going to be an easy choice to make. It will also inevitably create some disruption for students, families and staff.