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Saugus, Stoneham, N. Reading gain school building aid

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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Saugus has been awarded a state grant to help fund upgrades to the Belmonte Middle School, setting the stage for a key tax vote on the $18.9 million project next month.

The award by the Massachusetts School Building Authority came as the agency, at a Sept. 28 meeting of its board, also advanced major building projects in North Reading and Stoneham into schematic design and agreed to provide funding for green-oriented repair projects in North Andover and Lowell.

The Saugus project would provide what town officials say is a much needed overhaul of the 159,800-square-foot middle school building, which has not undergone a major renovation since it opened in 1964.

“We’re thrilled,’’ said School Committee chairwoman Wendy Reed, who also chairs the school building committee. “It’s a great feeling to know we are moving right along.’’

Town Meeting voted unanimously in May to appropriate funding for the project, subject to passage of a debt exclusion at the Nov. 8 election.

The state building authority has agreed to reimburse 53.32 percent, or up to $10.1 million, of eligible project costs. The award is contingent on the town authorizing full funding for the project, which requires passage of the temporary tax increase.

In moving the North Reading project to schematic design, the state agency approved the alternative selected by a feasibility study for addressing the needs of the town’s 56-year-old high school, which officials say is overcrowded and has multiple needs.

The plan calls for renovating and constructing an addition to the middle school building and erecting a new high school on adjacent land. The addition would house common core facilities for the two schools. The existing high school building, which currently shares the middle school campus, would be razed.

“We are pleased and excited about the prospect of a new middle school/high school campus being built for the students of North Reading,’’ said School Superintendent Kathleen Willis.

The district hopes to complete the schematic design in time to have the building authority board vote at its January meeting on funding the project. The authority has tentatively set 45.11 percent as its reimbursement rate for eligible costs of the estimated $96.2 million project, but the district is confident it can earn points by including green design features.

If the state approves funding, the town would have to approve full funding within 120 days. The district tentatively plans to seek a Special Town Meeting in February to take up the funding, and a special election that month to act on a proposed debt exclusion.

The building authority board, in advancing the Stoneham project to schematic design, approved the preferred option of a feasibility study into the building needs of its 57-year-old middle school.

The middle school currently shares a campus with the Central Elementary School. The preferred option calls for the middle school to relocate to the 56,858-square-foot Central School building and a proposed 79,715-square-foot addition. The existing middle school building would be razed.

The proposal is tied to a grade reconfiguration plan that would add the fifth grade to the sixth to eighth grade middle school. The Central school would cease operating and the other three preK-5 elementary schools would switch to preK-4.

“It was very exciting,’’ School Committee member Jeanne Craigie, who chairs the school building committee, said of the MSBA’s recent vote and the fact that the board “complimented us on the total utilization of our buildings.’’

The Stoneham district also hopes to complete its schematic design in time for the state vote in January to help fund the project, estimated at $37.5 million to $39 million. The state building authority has tentatively set a reimbursement rate of 50.58 percent, but the town hopes to qualify for added points.

If the authority approves that award, the district is tentatively seeking a Special Town Meeting vote in February to authorize the funding, and to have a ballot vote on a debt exclusion at the annual Town Meeting in April.

Lowell and North Andover received their awards through the state’s Green Repair Program, a one-time initiative that helps districts fund roof, window, and boiler repairs that improve energy efficiency.

Lowell’s funding would pay for roof replacement at the high school and the Peter W. Reilly Elementary School, roof and window replacement at the Moody Elementary School, and roof, boiler, and window replacement at the Washington Elementary School.

“These projects deal with four of our older school buildings in the city,’’ said Jay Lang, Lowell’s deputy school superintendent. “This will be a great opportunity for us to make significant repairs at these four facilities that otherwise might not have been possible.’’

Lang said the City Council will be asked to authorize borrowing for the $6.7 million overall cost of the projects. The state is reimbursing 80 percent, or up to $4.85 million of eligible costs.

North Andover would use its funding for roof replacement at the Middle and Annie L. Sargent Elementary schools, and for new windows at the Atkinson Elementary School.

The building authority is reimbursing for 47.42 percent, or up to $2.1 million in eligible costs.

The district was already planning to make repairs to those facilities, said Jim Mealey, its business manager. But now the cost to the town will be less and “we will get a more energy efficient product.’’

Town Meeting last June approved $3.88 million for the projects, based on estimates then. But the price tag has since risen to $4.57 million, and a Nov. 15 Special Town Meeting will be asked to authorize the additional $693,000.