Need for new high school is explored

Spot on state list prompts inquiry

Principal John Hughes pointed out some of Natick High's shortcomings while leading a tour last July for members of a School Building Authority review team. Principal John Hughes pointed out some of Natick High's shortcomings while leading a tour last July for members of a School Building Authority review team. (Bill Polo/Globe Staff/FILE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2008

The roof leaks. The library lacks modern technology, and the science labs are inadequate. And every day the original, 54-year-old boiler works properly, the custodian says a prayer of thanks.

So is it time for a new Natick High School?

"I think there is a good feeling in the community that the need is real," said the district's interim superintendent, Joseph Keefe. "It's worn out."

Now that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has chosen Natick as one of 49 districts to potentially warrant a new school, voters will be asked at the April 8 Town Meeting to authorize spending $250,000 on a feasibility study about whether such a plan makes sense.

The authority has created a five-year capital pipeline of $2.5 billion for eligible school construction and renovation projects. It received 426 inquiries from 161 districts. A review team spent time at Natick High on July 26.

About half of the cost to build a new school would be funded by the state. The town would borrow the rest, and officials would need voter approval of an override of the state's Proposition 2 1/2 law for a tax increase to pay for the bond.

The School Committee has spent what it could to upgrade the high school, which was built in 1954, expanded in 1964 and improved in the mid-1980s, Keefe said, and now it's time for action. Demographic information is being compiled and sent to the state, along with a report on how a new facility would advance the curriculum of the future.

Community meetings set for March 12 and 13 will pose the question: "What is it that children should know and be able to do in 2025?" Keefe said. Answers to that query will be presented to the state by May.

"If we are in contention with China, then why does the high school teach everything but Cantonese?" Keefe asked. "And if we are engaged with the Middle East, why don't we teach Farsi or Arabic?

"I think we can build a vision," he said.

The feasibility study would be a further step in the process.

Some residents, like David Wodeyla, who writes a blog called Around Natick, would prefer renovations.

"You might use $2 million for the roof, which leaks like a sieve, for example, and maybe $2 million for the elevator," and plan out other improvements over succeeding years, he contended. "It could be done for half the cost."

But Selectman Joel Ostroff said putting a feasibility study to a vote makes sense, noting that the high school's major systems are beyond repair or can't be fixed cost-effectively, and the building is not handicapped accessible.

Keefe has spoken with every PTO group in town to encourage parents to support the proposal. He has also argued in favor of the proposed $3.9 million tax increase coming up for a vote March 25, which school and town officials see as necessary to head off budget cuts in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Any override for the high school would come later. The data gathered for the feasibility study would be presented to the state, and if the project is accepted for funding, Natick would be required to hire a project management firm to coordinate the construction. The vote for the debt-exclusion override - triggering a tax increase that would expire once the bond is paid off, typically in 20 years - would happen after a design is considered, officials said.

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