PEABODY — School building projects for Peabody High and the Center Elementary School — two buildings that are top priorities for the city to rehab or replace — have failed to get the green light from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for state funding.
“Based upon the MSBA’s review and due diligence process, it has been determined that the Center Elementary School and the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School SOIs (statements of interest) will not be invited into the MSBA’s Eligibility Period at this time,” said a letter dated Dec. 11 from the quasi-independent state agency that helps cities and towns pay for school building projects.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt says he wasn’t too surprised by the news, however, and remains undaunted in pursuing those projects.
Bettencourt, who also serves as chairman of the School Committee, said he plans to try again to win state reimbursements, which would greatly offset the cost to renovate, add on to or replace the two schools.
“I didn’t hold up much hope we would be approved on the first applications,” he acknowledged in an interview last week.
It’s not unusual for cities and towns to resubmit a statement of interest more than once for the same project. Peabody was rebuffed in similar fashion on its first attempt to pursue the Higgins Middle School project more than a decade ago. A project to fix the Welch School on Swampscott Avenue took five straight submissions from 2014 to 2019, notes School Committee member Beverley Griffin Dunne.
The city has submitted statements of interest for the Center School on Irving Street seven times since 2009, according to Dunne. And, she said, the MSBA has signed off on repair projects at Peabody High in recent years, but this was the first time in many years that the city sought to build a new high school.
Her attitude is the city has to keep trying: “You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.”
“I’m disappointed,” Dunne said. “I can understand, we’ve been at it so long, you have to get a good statement of interest so it will meet the criteria of the MSBA and be selected.”
If the city wants to resubmit for either or both schools, officials have until April 8 to try again to get on the list for the MSBA’s Core Program, which covers extensive repairs, renovations, additions and new school construction.
In 2019, the MSBA received 61 statements of interest from 51 school districts when it came to trying to identify which projects had the “greatest and most urgent need.” The agency bases its decisions on proposed projects that are received each year.
Statements of interest identify problems with buildings in terms of what needs to be fixed or how the educational program is hampered.
Bettencourt, during his inaugural address earlier this month, spoke about the city’s “successful partnership” with the MSBA that enabled the city to construct the new Higgins School on Perkins Street, which opened in 2016. It took several submissions before a statement of interest was accepted in 2012 to win reimbursement for a large portion of the cost of the $92.6 million school.
He took a long view on the eventual replacement of Peabody High, saying it might take five to seven years.
Bettencourt said in an interview that it’s important still to get the nearly 50-year-old building on the MSBA’s radar.
It’s plagued by a leaky roof, uneven heat and is less than energy efficient. Among other things, the high school lacks enough science labs. While “wonderful things” are happening at the high school educationally, “the building itself is in subpar condition,” the mayor said.
He did note, however, several million dollars the city has spent in recent years to upgrade the school’s athletic facilities, cafeteria, and auditorium and to repair a large section of the roof, along with other accessibility and system upgrades.
As for the Center School, Dunne said the problems with that building are so numerous they would not fit under an accelerated repair program, which is for the replacement or repair of windows, roofs, and/or boilers in otherwise sound school buildings. The city is taking that route with leaky roofs at the South and West schools.
The major flaws with the Center School, built in 1955, includes a classroom used as a library, and a combined cafeteria and gymnasium that is used for gym classes, music instruction and lunch. This requires custodians to set up and break down tables and seats throughout the day. The space is too small for an all-school assembly of the 423 students in grades K-5 this year.
When asked about the roof, she said: “It leaks like a sieve.”
A project to fix the 1973 Welch School’s frosted Lexan windows, and install new heating and air conditioning systems, is still on track. In the fall, the City Council approved borrowing $1.2 million for a feasibility study, following an initial green light from the MSBA to proceed.