SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 4, 2013

State pledges help for new Higgins School

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — The state has officially pledged to kick in more than half the cost of building a new Higgins Middle School.

State Treasurer Steven Grossman, who chairs the Massachusetts School Building Authority, made the announcement yesterday, promising a $43.6 million grant. The decision came at a hearing that included Mayor Ted Bettencourt, Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and school board member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne.

The total cost of the three-story structure — to be built adjacent to the current school — is estimated at $83 million. The state contribution represents more than 56 percent of the cost.

Upon completion of the new school, the old building, constructed in 1964, will be razed and the area converted to sports fields.

“This is a down payment on the academic excellence of Peabody students,” Grossman said in a written statement. “Upon completion, this new school will provide a modern learning environment and create the space needed to deliver on the school district’s educational commitments and goals.”

The decision puts the project on track for a planned June 2014 groundbreaking, according to school board member Jarrod Hochman.

“This is the last step prior to breaking ground,” he said. “It’s a historic day for the city of Peabody.”

The next step is putting out requests for bids to build, he said. Once ground is broken, construction is expected to take two years.

Hochman praised those who have put significant effort into making this happen, including former Mayor Michael Bonfanti, Bettencourt, Mastrocola and Griffin Dunne. “They’ve all done a terrific job. ... A lot of people have put a lot of hard work into this.”

“It’s a milestone,” said School Committee member David McGeney. “It’s tangible evidence that Peabody cares about education and is willing to make an investment in it. ... I’m delighted, but I’m not surprised.”

Initially, there had been discussions of renovating the school, one of the largest middle schools in the country, McGeney said. “But then they determined that Peabody is worth a new building.”

Even at that, Peabody was tempted to try a new model school program, which would have had the city buying an architectural plan already created for another municipality, thus saving a significant amount of money.

“But the state kept an open mind,” McGeney said, and was convinced that the size of the Higgins population and the location of the school merited a unique structure.

Having a carefully designed new building, he said, opens up all sorts of new options in terms of how students are educated. “We’re really getting a fresh start, and everything is on the table.”

The planned school would house 1,340 students in grades six to eight, roughly the same population as the current building.

“Students will soon have a beautiful new space, which will undoubtedly enhance and improve their ability to excel in the classroom,” Jack McCarthy, executive director of the School Building Authority, said in a press release.