By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — It’s time to show Beacon Hill why Peabody wants the money.
The School Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to send the conceptual design for the new middle school to the Massachusetts School Building Authority today.
“There wasn’t much discussion,” said School Committee member Jarrod Hochman, citing the lack of any opposition to the project.
“The vote had to take place (on Tuesday),” said colleague Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, chairwoman of the School Building Committee. “The projected budget and the schematic drawings needed to be turned in to the MSBA on Valentine’s Day.”
The city is hoping to get some prompt love back from the state in the form of up to 59 percent of the $83 million cost of the project. Once the state approves the plans, the architectural firm of DiNisco Design will get the go-ahead to produce detailed blueprints.
The building is expected to accommodate 1,340 kids in grades six, seven and eight. The structure will replace the adjacent 50-year-old Higgins Middle School, which will continue to operate until the new school’s planned opening in the fall of 2016. Eventually, it will be razed to the ground and sports fields put in its place.
Up to now, Griffin Dunne said, the process is right on schedule. “We’re doing very well.”
Once the blueprints are done, the School Committee anticipates one more vote on the project before it goes to the City Council for approval. That will happen with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who has made construction of the school a key goal of his administration.
Among residents, Griffin Dunne said, she’s encountered virtually no opposition to the plan, despite its cost.
“I’ve received overwhelming support for this from neighbors, friends and constituents,” Hochman said. “I think it’s going to be a great thing for the city. ... It’s going to draw people to the city. It’s going to draw businesses here.” That, he said, makes it a positive even for those who have no children in the schools.
Currently, Higgins has an extraordinarily large enrollment, at 1,341. But Hochman noted the skill of Principal Todd Busey and his staff in breaking up classes into clusters.
“Kids don’t feel in the least lost in the shuffle,” he said. The new building’s “efficient design” will ease that situation further, as each grade with have its own floor and each cluster its own space.
Hochman, a former member of the Conservation Commission, also praised the proposed building’s smaller footprint and the attention to avoiding rain runoff that would impact the flood-prone downtown.
To oversee the project, the School Building Committee has designated $100,000 to hire a clerk of the works, Griffin Dunne said. “A retired person from the construction industry,” she suggested. “Someone with a lot of experience.”
Answerable only to the city, the clerk would keep watch on construction to ensure that Peabody gets value for its money.