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State invites Franklin into model school

Building model school would put town’s cost share at under $40m

By Zak Jason
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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Freshmen starting at Franklin High School this fall may be attending classes in a new building before they graduate.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts School Building Authority voted to invite Franklin into its model school program, which could provide the town with more than $50 million in reimbursements for the cost of building a new school.

The agency’s decision came after the local School Building Committee voted 11-2 in favor of building a new school under the model school system, using a design already certified by the state, rather than simply renovating the current building as originally planned or starting from scratch with a new design.

The committee began discussing improvements to the high school, built in 1972, in early 2004. The building was experiencing plumbing and structural problems, and was having trouble keeping too up with the town’s growing population.

Initially, members of the committee consulted architectural firms about renovating. But earlier this year, when the committee met with the state School Building Authority, the option for a model school built on the same campus became much more appealing and financially viable.

“Students get one shot at high school,’’ said Superintendent Maureen Sabolinski, an adamant proponent of the model school program. “You don’t want any student’s memory of high school to be of trying to find where the bathroom opened into the lunch room.’’

The complexity of the current building would make renovations very invasive to the school day, officials said. With 19 different roof lines and walls primarily lined with cinder block, construction workers couldn’t possibly refurbish the school in a discreet manner.

“We would literally have to rip apart the walls to get to the plumbing,’’ said Sabolinski.

As the building committee conducted a feasibility study, it discovered that renovations would also prove very costly. In a budget document released to the public in March, the committee revealed that an extensive renovation would cost $97.9 million before state reimbursement. In the same document, the projection for a model school stood at $91.6 million. But the state allocates an additional 5 percent to the total reimbursement of the model school project, which lowers the final town cost to just under $40 million.

For years the committee debated the renovation-rebuilding quandary, until the scales tipped decidedly last month when the Massachusetts School Building Authority indicated that it would probably invite Franklin to join its model school program. A quasi-independent government agency, the state authority aims to streamline public school building projects throughout the Commonwealth.

The MSBA offers the Model School Program, which presents schools with pre-designed buildings that are supposed to be sustainable, accommodating, and with efficient and modern classroom and lab space.

To date, four schools in the commonwealth have employed model schools, Ashland, Hudson, Shrewsbury, and Whitman-Hanson.

Fifteen other school districts, including Natick, have begun to negotiate with the Authority in an effort to adopt model schools of their own.

Franklin became the latest to join the pipeline.

“Their site and budget led both the district and the MSBA to conclude that a Model School was the best solution to Franklin’s facility needs and will help the district deliver its educational program,’’ Emily Mahlman, director of communications for the MSBA, said in an e-mail.

Compared to her qualms with renovating, the superintendent holds no known concerns on the model plan.

“Model school building offers a solid, cost-effective, architectural plan,’’ she said. “With the engineering systems, all the kinks have been worked out. So there aren’t a lot of those unanticipated issues that happen with a lot of new buildings.’’

On July 20 Sabolinski and members of the school building committee visited the four model high schools in the area to scope options and specifications. While they didn’t decide on one model in particular, they noted some features they would like to incorporate.

“In most high schools, guidance is physically located near the main office. At Shrewsbury high school, it’s located in the middle of the academic wing, which I think is a great concept. It’s a very student-focused concept, I think it makes guidance accessible to students, and it enables them to be a partner with classroom teachers to help students,’’ said Sabolinski.

With the official invitation from the MSBA, the committee will now negotiate with the four architect firms of the local schools and vote on one by the end of August. The MSBA will have to approve Franklin’s selection, and then ultimately the public will have to vote on funding the town’s portion of the project.

James Roche, chairman of the Franklin Finance Committee, wonders whether citizens will be willing to fund the school as the country rebounds from the recession.

“That’s certainly a question, in this economy, are there enough people who understand the need for a school?’’ said Roche.