MIDDLESEX - Losing hope that the state would ever respond to Stoneham's asks for financial assistance to help with the construction of a new high school, town leaders in late 2016 briefly questioned whether it would be better to go it alone on the project.
Now, with designers from architectural firm Perkins & Will estimating that new Franklin Street facility will cost at least $173 million to renovate or replace, Stoneham's taxpayers can certainly be grateful for the wise decision against that lone wolf approach.
In fact, according to Stoneham Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan, even with Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) contributions of up to $51.1 million, the average homeowner in the community would be asked to pay roughly $950 in new annual taxes over the next 20-years for a new high school.
Given that steep financial reality, town officials are considering a longer 30-year debt exclusion that would drop the annual burden for the typical resident down to around $770 a year.
"We understand this is a large increase," the town administrator told virtual audience members during a public forum a few weeks ago. "The School Building Committee was just shown this information a few weeks ago and it's still digesting this information."
Over the past two months, Stoneham High School's (SHS) Building Committee and Perkins & Will designer Brooke Trivas have been making the rounds about town to detail the top five scenarios for addressing a myriad of educational programming and building system deficiencies with the existing 211,000 square foot high school.
Originally starting with 10 alternatives, School Building Committee Co-chair David DeBois during a virtual presentation earlier this month explained that two off-site options to build a new high school at the private Bear Hill Golf Course by the Reading line or at the public Unicorn Golf Course off of William Street were immediately rejected as unrealistic due to cost and time considerations.
That in turn left the School Building Committee with just one viable site at the existing 40-acre SHS campus off of Franklin Street, which is situated within a reasonably close proximity to both the Melrose line and Stoneham Square.
"We've gone from 10 design options to five. Two [of the original 10] were kind of mandated by the state," DeBois explained.
"We have over 33-acres of [usable space] over at the high school and we want to utilize every space we can not only for students, but also for our community members who want to walk, or play sports, or ride bikes," later remarked Schools' Superintendent John Macero, who explained all of the proposals include plans for new artificial playing fields and other recreational amenities.
As the study group explained earlier this month, all indications are that the wisest choice is to build the brand new school that has been championed by local families and school proponents for more than a decade now.
Specifically, two of the options recently explored by Perkins and Will, consisting of a renovation-only or a renovation and addition scenario, will reportedly cost as much if not more than the leading proposals for erecting a brand new educational facility with a capacity for up to 695 students.
Trivas, whose firm was retained to conduct a $750,000 feasibility study, estimates it will cost $173.4 million to renovate the existing building, while a renovation with a two-story addition is the most expensive alternative with a forecasted $175.2 million price tag.
Under both scenarios, students can be housed within the existing high school during construction.
The new school, to be positioned either directly in front of the existing building or offset with an academic wing on the east and a gymnasium to the west of the current school, will include new science labs, dedicated special education and music/art rooms, and a small wing for the town's pre-K program.
"If we build in front [of the current school], you'd have a great civic presence on Franklin Street. You'd also have optimal daylight. There is a dropping grade of 15-to-20 feet from east to west, so we'd have to integrate [that slope] into the design," said Trivas of the more expensive rebuild scenario, which will cost about $174.8 million.
The second new school scenario, with the academic wing offset to the easterly side, would carry an approximate $173 million price tag.
"This would deny the view if it was set to the side. It's also the highest point of the site. There's also a lot of ledge over there and a lot of grade changes...It also places [part of the building] closer to the neighbors," the designer advised the public during the most recent virtual forum.
The ongoing study is being conducted at the behest of MSBA, the state agency that has contributed some $14.7 billion towards community school building projects since its inception in 2004.
Though Stoneham is still not guaranteed state funding for SHS, which was first constructed as a junior high school back in 1968, the town's slow but steady advancement through the MSBA's funding pipeline indicates an increasing probability of the town being deemed eligible for financial assistance.
School officials are holding the community forums as they get ready to take a final vote regarding the town's top site preference and design scenario for the undertaking.
The MSBA has already said that if it agrees to partner with the community, it will foot at least 52 percent of construction budget — minus ineligible items such as press boxes, outdoor restrooms and concession stands, and high-capacity gymnasiums and auditoriums.
According to DeBois, the School Building Committee is hoping to choose its preferred site and design in early December. Should the MSBA agree with that selection, local officials would then move into the schematic design phase of the analysis.
Ultimately, the town hopes to have a final decision from the MSBA about a funding partnership by next August. Once the town obtains that approval, town citizens would then be asked to appropriate funding for the project during a fall Town Meeting. Voters will also need to approve the debt exclusion at the ballot box.