Thanks to Massachusetts School Building Authority funding, Tewksbury has the green light to move forward with plans to build a new elementary school next to the existing Ryan School on Doucette Field, 135 Pleasant St.
The project, which would cost the town approximately $33M (the MSBA could fund $32.7M, according to Tewksbury’s Elementary School Building Committee chair Dennis Francis, if all reimbursement conditions are met), would replace the aging Trahan and North Street Elementary schools, both built in the 1950s.
The building would house grades 2, 3 and 4, plus the district’s central offices, which currently reside in the Center School on Pleasant Street. The town has held 12 community forum meetings, with more planned, about the proposed three-story building. Ultimately, Town Meeting will have the final say when it convenes in May.
This project would impact residents by $445.46 per average home value of $404,963 or $1.10/1,000 for residential values and $1.92/1,000 for commercial, industrial and personal property values. These numbers are based on a 4.25 percent interest rate and all town property values remaining the same (current FY19) and the split staying at 1.55.
Francis noted the numbers are the maximum that taxpayers can expect and hoped they’d come in lower. Costs for a new field, offices, stands, and the demolition of the Center School won’t be reimbursed by the MSBA, but eight percent of site work is reimbursable.
In the event Town Meeting declines to support the project, the town would need to rebuild the current elementary schools, thereby displacing students. With a new school, no displacement would be necessary.
The town is working with Kent Kovacs of Flansburgh Architects and Peter Collins of the project management firm CBRE/Heery. Every year communities submit applications to the state for reimbursement and the MSBA then chooses the ones with the greatest need. Kovacs and Collins said the Trahan School fit that profile.
“When the MSBA came to visit . . . they realized that there is a severe need here,” Kovacs informed residents at a community forum back in January.
“The condition of our four elementary schools is not conducive to learning,” Superintendent Christopher Malone told residents at a recent community forum.
He added the decision to combine grades 2, 3 and 4 concerned the health of not only the Trahan School, but the other elementary schools, such as Heath Brook and Dewing, which contain grades K-2, as well as preschool programs.
Fortunately, more than half the cost of the project will be covered by the MSBA, an extremely high amount, according to Kovacs. He added how reimbursement rates have been declining over the past few years. But with the Trahan and North Street schools not up to state building codes or compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the state offered the town 58.77 percent.
(With the point system for the MSBA set to change, the town was grandfathered into the existing system, thereby allowing it to receive the maximum benefits.)
Kovacs informed residents that “(the Trahan) has lived out its useful life.”
Collins added: “This school was built when they thought the world was going nuclear...the MSBA says, ‘We don’t want you coming back to us, so we’ll take care of you now.’”
Tewksbury chose the location for its size and proximity to the Ryan School. A new traffic plan will utilize a loop road around the two schools (both schools will have different start times) to help with any possible congestion.
If the project gets Town Meeting approval, residents can expect construction to start in 2020 with the school opening in 2022. The demolition of the Center School office building would finish the same year the new school came online or in early 2023.
Residents can expect larger classrooms, dedicated art, music and special education spaces, a larger divisible gymnasium for school use, more “green” features, and improved air quality, lighting and heat control.
Every possible feature for the new school came about through extensive dialogue with teachers and staff at the current elementary schools.
“When we came on board, we interviewed the teachers at every school to understand their concerns. When they looked at the options that were being considered, this was the option that resonated with all the teachers … they realized this was an opportunity for students . . . and parents . . . to come together earlier . . . and share resources,” Kovacs said at a community forum back in January.
While the town could have chosen to simply repair the Trahan and North Street schools, the state decided that wouldn’t be the most cost-effective option. Therefore, it approved funding for a new building. It’s unclear what will happen to the existing Trahan and North Street schools, however. The Dewing and Heath Brook schools will remain as they are, according to ESBC member and Selectman Anne Marie Stronach.
Residents who showed up to the dozen meetings asked questions about enrollment growth, contractor work, flooding and drainage, the new athletic field, and traffic.
Superintendent Malone said, regarding possible enrollment growth, the MSBA projects a slight state-wide population decline over the next 25 years; however, there is room for a 10 percent build-out if the need arises. He added the new school will alleviate some overcrowding at the Dewing School and increase some opportunities for preschool programming and special education.
“It will allow us a little bit of breathing room.” he acknowledged.
Malone also stated how the new building can be used for community meetings and performances.
The contractor hasn’t been chosen yet (technically, the project hasn’t received town approval), but Kovacs and Collins announced the process would be competitive. They said some contractors were aware of the project, but no one has been selected yet.
When one resident asked why the new field, a proposed synthetic, turf field, wasn’t a separate ballot question, Building Committee chair Francis explained how it has to do with it being a community field and not one used by “outside people.” He said the School Committee would be responsible for laying out policy around the usage of the field.
Selectman Brian Dick, also a member of the School Athletic Field Committee, said Doucette Field is 100 years old and in danger of being condemned.
There are also flooding and drainage issues, but Kovacs assured residents that the new field/school wouldn’t bring about any additional increase in flooding. He said while the grade would be elevated by two feet, subsurface chambers around the entire property would make up the difference.
For traffic issues, Kovacs said the added loop road should help alleviate traffic concerns especially with the overlap of extended day traffic with the high school traffic.
Whatever Town Meeting decides to do, residents will have to at some point cough up serious cash. Both Trahan and North Street need repairs that would cost $35M-$45M should Town Meeting reject the new building idea.
“If this doesn’t pass (at Town Meeting), you’re back in (the MSBA waiting) line for another 15 years. You can’t wait 15 years, so you’ll have to pony up the money yourselves,” said Collins.
(Material from Rosalyn Impink was used to compile this report)