MIDDLESEX - With the first shovels full of dirt likely to be scooped from the future construction site sometime next summer, a dogged band of Stoneham citizens and politicians can finally celebrate the fruits of their decade-plus long pursuit of a new high school.
Last month, Stoneham’s citizenry overwhelmingly voted in favor of the community’s largest ever debt exclusion by okaying a generational $190 million investment into the construction of a new three-story Stoneham High School (SHS).
The new high school project does come with a significant $49 million contribution from the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA), which with its latest pledge, will have now contributed money to rebuild every single educational facility in Stoneham.
With the debt exclusion passing by a near 4-to-1 margin, Stoneham’s taxpayers, who have since the mid-2000s rebuked various attempts by town officials to pass operating budget overrides, demonstrated that they are more than willing to shoulder an extra financial burden to support the community’s educational infrastructure.
“I would say in Stoneham, we’re very supportive about debt exclusions for the schools,” said Stoneham Town Clerk Maria Sagarino, when asked last month if she was surprised by the lopsided election results.
With inflated construction costs driving up the SHS project’s price tag by some $17 million over just the past year alone, the average Stoneham homeowner will reportedly pay around $25,000 over the next 30 years to foot the bill for the new high school campus. Meanwhile, Stoneham residents are less than half-way through paying off the $40.6 million debt exclusion passed in 2012 for a new middle school - which is costing the typical homeowner an estimated $176 a year.
According to local officials like Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan and Stoneham Schools’ Superintendent John Macero, who inherited the still-unapproved high school project when he was hired away from Winthrop in 2017, they’ve been humbled by the community’s outpouring of support for the new high school.
“When I arrived less than five years ago, the consistent concern throughout the community was the high school building. [During the recent special election], the town approved this issue to be resolved and I am proud of all the work of School Building Committee has done to bring us to this point in time.”
“I am particularly grateful for all the efforts of the community members and staff who over a period of several years made this opportunity a possibility,” Sheehan later remarked.
Stoneham’s future crown jewel
Since 2000, Stoneham has replaced its middle school and each of its elementary schools with brand new state-of-the-art facilities.
Capping off that massive wave of investment, the $190 million high school project is expected to become the community’s crowned jewel, as the undertaking also involves the construction of a brand new athletic complex, various outdoor walking trails, and access to a new indoor and outdoor gathering spaces for special public events and celebrations.
To be situated on the same 35-acre campus as the existing high school, which sits off of Franklin Street by the Melrose line, the new facility will include 23 core classroom spaces, various art and music rooms, six new state-of-the-art art and science labs, and a brand new library.
The high school’s academic spaces will be clustered around a new ground-floor gymnasium, which project designers say will allow natural light to be pulled into hallways and other spaces. In another heralded design element, a grand entryway into the building will be anchored by an open seating area being dubbed as Spartan Place.
The grand glass-lined indoor space, which will double as the cafeteria, is situated right off a brand new kitchen area and is also within close proximity to the new school’s auditorium and gymnasium areas.
According to project architect Brooke Trivas, from design firm Perkins and Will, though functioning as the school’s cafeteria, the grand foyer can easily be transformed into the perfect gathering place for special functions. The indoor foyer will also open right up to the Spartan Plaza outdoor gathering area, which will include overhead cover to shield guests from the elements.
With the design team also laying out plans to construct new nature trails around the campus, the exterior space will include three new synthetic fields, including a brand new outdoor stadium bordered by a track.
The main athletic field will also include new home and visiting bleacher areas and an adjacent field house that includes girls and boys locker rooms, a concession stand, and public restrooms. Also to be rebuilt are the high school’s tennis courts and softball and baseball fields.
Lastly, the new energy efficient building will include an attached wing containing new administrative offices and a pre-K instruction area containing 14,000 square feet of space. The new pre-K space, which will include separate entrances to ensure the high school population is separated from younger children, will consist of eight classrooms with adjoining bathrooms. Separate playground and outdoor spaces are also being constructed.
Dating back to 1968, the present high school building was originally constructed as a junior high school and underwent its last major expansion and renovation project in 1980.
Current high school students will continue learning within the existing building during construction of the new three-story facility. It is expected the new SHS will be opened in time for the start of the 2024 academic year. Demolition of the old school is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2024, and work on the field areas will reportedly begin in the fall of 2024 and continue through the spring of 2025.
A long road
Proponents of the high school project began advocating in earnest for a renovation of the existing high school building back in 2013, when Stoneham filed its first so-called statement-of-interest (SOI) with the MSBA seeking funding.
Citing deficiencies with the 211,000 square foot building’s HVAC systems and inadequate access to the high-tech tools commonly used in modern-day classrooms, school officials had originally suggested the old 1968 facility could be renovated by retrofitting a series of vacant and used vocational shops into new science labs. The antiquated science spaces could then be converted into classrooms.
After the MSBA rejected the community’s SOI’s for four consecutive years between 2013 and 2016, citizens at Town Meeting agreed to study a potential high school project in greater detail. Ultimately, Stoneham hired Cambridge-based designer HFMH Architects to lead that analysis. In a report issued in October of 2017, representatives from the architectural firm concluded that the renovation concept would likely cost more money and take years longer than building an entirely new facility.
At the time, HFMH estimated it would cost anywhere from $135-to-$155 million to construct a new SHS.
Town officials ultimately used the HFMH report to shape future MSBA submissions and in the fall of 2019, some six months after the town shipped off its sixth SOI to the state agency, the community was invited into the MSBA funding pipeline.
Ultimately, a new High School Building Committee, during yet another joint feasibility study regarding the high school, abandoned the renovation concept and advanced plans to construct an entirely new facility.