STONEHAM - Stoneham's leaders had roughly 55 million reasons to stay-the-course, but with each passing year, hope for getting state funding for a new high school grew a little dimmer.
Earlier this month, after enduring five consecutive years of disappointment, town officials and residents learned the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA), an agency that has contributed billions towards the construction of new educational facilities across the state, will examine Stoneham's sixth formal request for a new high school.
Already studying at least three options for addressing a number of building system and space deficiencies with Stoneham High School (SHS), which was built in 1968, town-retained experts from Cambridge's HMFH Architects have concluded it will cost somewhere between $134-and-$155 million to implement one of those plans.
The state's involvement could bring considerable financial relief to citizens who will be asked to foot the bill for the undertaking, and HMFH officials last spring estimated those payments could shave roughly $55 million off that tax burden. Most recently, the MSBA contributed roughly $21.9 million towards Stoneham's new Central Middle School, a $40.5 million facility that opened its doors to students in 2014.
Upon receiving the recent SHS news, Schools' Superintendent John Macero heralded the Dec. 12 announcement from MSBA's Board of Directors, who selected just 12 petitions from more than 100 school districts asking to partner with the state agency in fiscal year 2019.
"[The] MSBA has officially approved Stoneham into the eligibility stage!" Macero bragged in a social media post that quickly spread across the community. "Congratulations. The journey begins!"
In the months preceding the SHS decision, town leaders and residents had expressed increasing skepticism that the MSBA, which had denied five consecutive statements-of-interests (SOI) concerning a potential high school renovation or rebuilding project, would change its mind of the sixth try.
Underscoring that sentiment, just weeks before the deadline for hearing back from the MSBA, Stoneham's Board of Selectmen and School Committee voted unanimously to form a High School Building Committee.
In making that decision, the elected officials said the action demonstrates community's commitment to addressing a growing list of deficiencies with the existing 211,000 square foot high school off of Franklin Street. And should the state defer the town's SOI application for a sixth time, project proponents argued, Stoneham would forge ahead without state funding.
"Irregardless of whether we get pushed forward or not, this is a step we can take to show the state we're serious," said Board of Selectmen Chair Shelly MacNeill during the joint meeting with the School Committee.
Renovation option dismissed
Technically, the MSBA vote to advance Stoneham's SOI into the so-called "eligibility phase" does not guarantee any funding for a SHS fix.
However, given the highly competitive nature of the SOI vetting process, which is the only way to obtain financial assistance for a building project, the news is a big deal for the community.
In the coming months, Stoneham's leaders will be asked to meet with MSBA officials to discuss the next steps in the process. Normally, the second phase involves the formation of a building committee and the hiring of a project manager and architect to oversea a joint feasibility study that examines options for addressing educational facility deficiencies and ways to fix those issues.
Town Meeting voters have already appropriated $150,000 to commission a feasibility study, and initial drafts of that HMFH report began circulating around Stoneham in the fall of 2017. Late last May, when the School Committee reviewed the final study, the superintendent stressed that the MSBA was likely to force Stoneham to repeat the analysis.
"Despite the fact that we've done our own study, the MSBA won't accept that," Macero stated matter-of-factly.
Though Stoneham will likely have to repeat the process, local officials say HMFH architects provided valuable insights that ultimately changed the community's approach to the SHS deficiencies.
Specifically, for years before that study, town officials had suggested in MSBA submittals that a renovation of the existing building was likely the best way to address inadequate classroom space and science and technology amenities.
With around 700 pupils enrolled at the high school, the district is able to avoid overcrowding within the building, which technically has room for about 975 pupils. However, as community members have indicated for years now, SHS, which was last updated in 1981, has just 51 classrooms that can be utilized on a regular basis.
Prior to retaining HMFH for professional advice, town leaders argued those issues should be addressed by conveying five long-abandoned vocational shops into state-of-the-art science labs. The building's existing science labs could then be reconfigured into classroom and instructional areas, which could be equipped with modern technological amenities by upgrading the 211,000 square foot facility's electrical system.
However, last spring, architect Tina Stanislaski warned that the renovation option, expecting to cost at least $142.6 million, proved to the the most expensive alternative studied by her Cambridge firm.
"You would think a renovation would be less expensive, but in most cases, it isn't," said Stanislaski, who explained work within the existing building would carry costly soft costs, such as the temporary lease of modular classrooms, while taking years longer to finish than building an entirely new facility.
Along similar lines, HMFH officials were also asked to consider tacking on an addition to the existing high school, where a reduced scope renovation would transpire. But that option too proved to be costly and time consuming, with price estimates for that project scope ranging between $138.4-and-$149.2 million.
Ultimately, taking the least amount of time — the timetable varies between three to five years, depending upon whether the MSBA was involved or not — the town feasibility study listed the construction of an entirely new high school as the cheapest alternative. Under that scenario, the building would be erected in an existing parking lot on the 35-acre property, while students continued to use the existing space.
The new three-story building, would be built off to the side of the existing building, but under the arrangement, a series of athletic fields would all be neatly aligned together on the educational property.
Without MSBA involvement, the project, which could be finished in as soon as three years, would cost roughly $134.2 million. However, taxpayers would have to foot the full bill for the project. By partnering with the MSBA, which Stanislaski estimated would cover roughly 45 percent of all associated costs, a new high school would cost a total of $144.9 million. The MSBA's portion of that bill would come to approximately $79 million.
The difference between the two price tags is due to the escalation of construction costs, which HMFH officials have claimed will increase by $5 million each year. As it stands, even though the MSBA planning and study process will drag out the total timeline, taxpayers would still save an estimated $55 million by partnering with the state agency.
"Obviously, we'd like to do this project with the MSBA, but right now, we're already $20 million in the hole, because as we keep waiting, it's costing $5 million a year," said Macero last spring, when he explained why local officials were weighing whether the wait for the state agency was worth it. "Hopefully, this year we'll get scheduled, but if we don't, we want to think about whether we want to do it ourselves."