BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — Built into the side of a hill off Lobao Drive, the low-slung, two-story Ivan G. Smith School has the stark appearance of a museum, library or science building built in the 1970s.
Instead of the usual walls, it has metal panels. And it’s safe to say that some in town are not crazy about its look.
Smith School was built at a time when open classrooms were in vogue. That’s not so much the case today, and its wide, open spaces have made it hard to configure individual classrooms and offices inside.
Town officials say the 40-year-old Smith School is in need of an update and are trying to get it on the list of Massachusetts School Building Authority projects, making it eligible for state funding.
For the second year in a row, the town plans to submit a statement of interest to get on the list. From there, the town would conduct a feasibility study to figure out whether the school, which serves children in kindergarten through fifth grade, should be renovated or replaced. There’s no cost attached to the project yet.
“We have to study the building in depth ... what kind of shape it’s in, where it’s going to be in 50 years,” said David Lane, the public works director.
While the school is structurally sound, he said, work needs to be done inside and out.
The school has outside walls made of metal panels that keep rusting out and require constant painting, using a complicated electrostatic process. The school’s single-pane windows are not energy-efficient, and a low-slung ceiling that is tied in with the heating and ventilation system needs to be ripped out and replaced.
In addition, even though the school sits on a 5-acre lot, it’s pressed up against woods, limiting parking. And because the school is built into the side of a hill, keeping stormwater away can be a challenge, Lane said.
The main entrance also presents a unique security challenge, in that it leads directly into an expansive school library and media center.
Classrooms are not located off corridors, as in a traditional school, but have been carved out within three large, open areas called pods.
Over the years, the town has constructed a warren of offices and classrooms within the pods. Low walls also have been added so lockers could be installed.
Complicating things are the school’s ventilation and heating systems, which send air circulating through small holes in a complicated, dropped ceiling with an angular design. The vents in the dropped ceiling prevent partitions from reaching all the way to the ceiling.
In addition, the ceiling was made from a proprietary system, and there are no parts available. The DPW has to make everything from scratch.
“We have to gut all this out and redo the HVAC to make it efficient,” Lane said.
The school has a cafeteria, gym and performance room used for music, but there is no stage or sound system.
The program of the school is an important consideration, Lane said. Superintendent Lisa Dana said many people like the open-classroom concept, as it makes the school a welcoming one.
Despite its building deficiencies, Smith School is one of the best-performing schools in the district. On the spring 2012 MCAS test, 80 percent of students in grades three, four and five scored proficient or higher in English language arts, and 69 percent did so in math, according to scores on the state Department of Education’s website. Thorpe School was the only one in the district to tie Smith on its math scores.
The town tried last year to get the project on the state list, but it was one of 200 project requests and did not make it. However, state officials encouraged the town to reapply, and the application is due April 10, Dana said.
The school, which has 271 students, is the last the town is seeking to renovate since a round of school projects began in the mid-1990s.
Town Meeting has appropriated $40,000 for a feasibility study for technical work related to the project.
The School Committee and selectmen will vote later this month on whether to approve the statement of interest that must be submitted to get on the state list.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.