By Alan Burke
PEABODY — Just you wait, J. Henry Higgins Middle School, just you wait.
Eliza Doolittle couldn't have been clearer about her Henry Higgins, as city officials gathered last night to advocate building a new middle school and leveling the old.
"I think we are on the cusp of a real possibility of having a new school," Mayor Ted Bettencourt told about 30 people at Kiley School.
Bettencourt and members of the School Building Committee argued that a new structure would only be marginally more costly than renovating the existing one.
"The numbers started to come so close together that it made sense to me that it was time to start looking at a new school," Bettencourt said.
With the state chipping in 55 percent of the cost, officials believe the city would be on the hook for $41.6 million for a new building or $35.6 million, plus $4 million to $6 million in relocation costs, for a renovation. A new school would mean an initial addition of $135.75 to the average tax bill, less than $20 more than the cost of a renovation. That difference would shrink in subsequent years.
Interim Superintendent Herb Levine said renovation would disrupt education, while a new building, constructed on nearby ball fields, would allow classes to continue normally.
Citing experiences building and renovating in Salem, Levine warned that renovation often means unexpected problems that delay completion and increase expenses.
Built in 1857 as a high school, Higgins was rated "fair to poor" by state officials in 2006, Bettencourt said. It is the largest middle school in the state.
A new school could help give the sense of a small school despite the 1,400 enrollment, Principal Todd Bucey said.
Higgins is not tight, he said.
"We've got energy pouring out the door," he said.
The current layout sends a thousand kids down a single corridor between classes, some sixth-graders must traverse the sprawling building to get from one room to another, and classes built for science cannot be used for that purpose.
With his school on 15 distinct levels, Bucey described a visit that required bringing a disabled person outside merely to get from one part to another.
The proposed new school, Ken DeNisco of DeNisco Design said, would be on three levels, separating sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and allowing students to be taught in clusters.
The preliminary plan will now go before a joint meeting of the School Committee and City Council for a vote on May 10.
Bettencourt hopes to submit a plan to the Massachusetts School Building Authority on June 26.
"If all went well, we could maybe get a shovel into the ground next spring or summer and be looking at a two-year project," he said.
Only a few residents attended last night's meeting, and none raised objections to the proposal.