PEABODY — A mayor-appointed School Building Committee voted unanimously yesterday to recommend building a new middle school, a crucial step toward replacing the aging Higgins Middle School.
"This is a big moment for the city of Peabody," Mayor Ted Bettencourt said after tapping the table in joy after the votes were counted. "Our children and grandchildren will benefit greatly from this decision. I am thrilled to have this vote today."
The group has been meeting since January 2009 to discuss the need for a new school and the best option for replacing Higgins, which was built as a high school in 1966. After officials from DiNisco Design — the architectural firm the city hired to guide it through the process — gave a brief presentation on the positives and negatives of new construction verses a less ambitious renovation/addition option, the committee did not hesitate to make its preferred option clear: The city should build a new school.
"A lot of work has led us to this, and a lot of work has gone into the numbers, which we've reviewed constantly over the last six months," said Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, a School Committee member and the chairwoman of the School Building Committee.
The committee has been considering various options, ranging from a repair and renovation option to a full-scale custom-designed new school. The renovation/addition option would have built a wing onto the existing school and renovated much of what's there now. That would have cost about $81 million, with the city paying $35.5 million and the state picking up the rest. A new school is estimated to cost between $87 million and $89 million, depending on whether city officials choose to build a custom school or go with a model school — duplicating a school that has already been built, therefore cutting down on design costs. The city's share for a custom school is estimated to be about $41.6 million, while the model school option would cost about $36.8 million, with the state paying the rest.
The committee did not vote yesterday on which new school option it prefers. That vote will take place later, after a public hearing and a joint presentation to the School Committee and City Council.
The proposed new school will be more energy-efficient and compact, and there is much less uncertainty in building new, rather than ripping into a four-decade-old building and renovating, architects said. There are also a lot of "below the line" costs to renovation, they said.
For instance, the renovation would mean moving all of the vocational students off-site and paying tuition to other districts at a cost of between $1 million and $1.6 million. The sixth grade would be moved to Kiley School, which would cost another $1.5 million; busing to the Kiley would cost $630,000; and relocating the school administration, which is now in Kiley, would cost about $450,000. All told, it might add $3.6 million in costs to the project, officials said.
The new school, which in preliminary designs is three stories with a grade level on each floor, would be built on the ball fields adjacent to the existing school. That would mean none of the shifting around that would be necessary under the renovation/addition plan. The new school, since it would be stacked, would also have a much smaller footprint and would cut in half the amount of time it takes to walk from one part of the school to the farthest point.
"You can see how sprawling the (old building) is and how compact this one is," architect Kenneth DiNisco said, showing committee members side-by-side aerial slides of the old and proposed schools.
Just before the vote, City Council member David Gravel urged the committee to consider lessons learned.
"This is 2001 all over again in my mind. I can close my eyes, and it's like I'm listening to the same presentation as when we decided on the high school," Gravel said, referring to the debate a decade ago about whether to renovate or replace Peabody Veterans Memorial High School. "We need to look back in history and ask the question, 'Do we want the same thing or similar?'"
Gravel, who fought for replacement then, said estimates on the high school renovation costs were too low, the project took too long and now the city is stuck with a high school not up to par.
"The window of opportunity opens up so few times. To me, the decision is real simple," he told the committee just before the vote. "Doing it right is important to me. I'd hate to look back 10 years and say, 'We had the chance and we did not do it.' I'd hate to see us make the same mistake twice."
A public informational session on the project will be scheduled for later this month in the Higgins auditorium. City officials tentatively plan to hold a joint meeting of the School Committee and City Council on April 25; the public will be able to speak at that meeting, as well. Then, the School Building Committee will come back for a final vote, possibly May 3, the mayor said. By June 6, the city would have to send the final plans to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for approval.
Yesterday's vote came less than a week after State Treasurer Steven Grossman visited Higgins and said that replacing it was a top priority.
"I want to thank everyone on this committee for all the hard work you've done," Mayor Bettencourt said after the vote. "We still have a lot of work to do."