STONEHAM, MA - With the Historical Commission seeking to preserve the character of the buildings, the School Committee recently concluded that it will likely declare the old East and North schools as surplus property this summer.
According to Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Les Olson, with both leases of the schools set to expire this summer, the local officials will likely abandon the facilities, as capital upkeep of the property will likely exceed the income gained by renting out the buildings again.
“We talked about it, and we did have some discussions with one other organization,” said Olson, referring to preliminary talks about continuing to lease the buildings. “The concern is the amount of capital [upkeep and repairs] these facilities would need.”
“Right now, they’re still under the control of the School Committee, but we assume that sometime this summer, these schools would in all likelihood be declared surplus property,” the superintendent explained.
Both the North and East Schools, located on Collincote Street and Beacon Street respectively, have been leased to the SEEM Collaborative for the past five years.
SEEM, a quasi-public entity overseen by area superintendents — Olson is one of the Board of Directors — serves special education (SPED) students from Stoneham, Melrose, Reading, and Woburn, amongst other communities.
This Wednesday night, the town’s Historical Commission is hosting a meeting to discuss the plausibility of selling and reusing both buildings in a manner that preserves the historical character of the structures.
The Selectmen, supportive of the so-called “adaptive reuse” of the properties, backed the idea behind the forum, but refused to establish a committee to explore what the future of the properties should become.
In particular, several Selectmen pointed out that the School Committee still retains jurisdiction of the land and that in the past, discussions about developing or selling the properties resulted in a storm of controversy.
“We can do the general work, but before we establish a committee, you should talk to the superintendent,” Selectmen Chair Paul Rotondi said to Historical Commission member Marcia Wengen. “[Selectmen] Richard [Gregorio} and I got caught in that buzz saw the last time.”
According to Town Administrator David Ragucci, he believes that a committee consisting of a Historical Commission member, one Selectman, one Finance and Advisory Board member, a Planning Board member, and citizen designees should be formed to consider how to dispose of the land.
“The adaptive reuse is basically saying, ‘We want to preserve the facade of these buildings. We don’t want to destroy the integrity of the architecture,’” Ragucci explained.
“This committee would be charged with holding public hearings, getting feedback from the community, and putting together an RFP to dispose of the properties,” he furthered.
According to Wengen, the expertise of town officials will be needed to examine possible zoning issues at the parcels, especially at the North School, where the 3.04-acre parcel is located in a single-family home district.
Both Wengen and Ragucci believe that low-impact uses, such as a condominium development, low-density office space, or an assisted living or nursing facility, are best for the two old schools.
Though Stoneham was initially in the hunt to renew the two lease agreements at the East and North Schools, the special education service provider opted earlier this spring to move those two therapeutic programs to neighboring Melrose.
However, SEEM’s Board of Directors did recently renew its lease of the Old Central School, where a behavioral program is situated.
That three-year deal, which includes the possibility of exercising two additional option years, will bring in around $310,000 in annual rental income. As has been past practice, SEEM will be responsible for all utility, rubbish removal, and snow plowing costs.
The town stands to lose a significant amount of revenue from the loss of the Old North and East School tenants, as Stoneham received an estimated $2.4 million in rental income from the three leases over the past five years.
That revenue, used first for capital upkeep at those buildings, also helped offset maintenance costs in the district’s remaining buildings.
According to Olson, though the School Committee anticipated losing those dollars, knowing that Woburn and Melrose were competing for the rental income, the SEEM move will hurt the school budget next year.
“We did anticipate that SEEM would be giving up their leases. So we did account for the lower income revenue,” Olson explained. “But it did contribute to some of the staff layoffs we’ll be experiencing next year.”
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