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New school all prepped for students

Officials resolve last-minute snag

Reading's new Wood End Elementary School, which overcame a number of legal challenges before the first nail was even hammered, has survived a last-minute glitch in its grand-opening plans and will be ready for the first day of school Tuesday, school and town officials said last week.

As teachers worked to get their classrooms ready, building inspector Glen Redmond told school officials in an e-mail on Aug. 26 that the building had to be vacated because the requirements of the town's building codes had not been met, according to Town Manager Peter I. Hechenbleikner. Teachers and administrators left the building.

Redmond did not return calls last week, but Hechenbleikner said the building inspector was concerned about two issues: the lack of treads on the main staircase and the failure to complete thresholds on two exits from the second floor.

Superintendent of Schools Patrick Schettini said school officials met with Redmond and, after the building inspector was assured that the work would be done, he granted the school a temporary certificate of occupancy on Aug. 27.

''The building inspector worked with us in order to resolve the issue," Schettini said.

Hechenbleikner said Wednesday that the required work had been completed. On Thursday, Redmond issued the school a permanent certificate of occupancy, Hechenbleikner said

School officials say the $11 million school is needed to deal with dramatic growth in school system enrollment.

''This is our answer to increased populations and overcrowding in the schools and the need to restore core spaces to their given purposes," said School Committee member Pete Dahl.

Since the mid-1990s, the town has focused on updating its educational buildings, which included modernizing existing schools and building the new elementary school. The process began in 1997, when the School Committee and superintendent of schools created the ad-hoc School Size and Enrollment Committee to review enrollments and space. The committee recommended the renovation of one of the town's four elementary schools and the construction of a fifth on school-owned land at the end of Sunset Rock Lane. The plan was endorsed by the School Committee and the annual Town Meeting the following spring.

''It was one of the first things I did on the board: to vote in favor of the elementary school," recalled Dahl.

Although the intention was good, school and town officials said conflict immediately began to slow down the proposal. An abutter sued on grounds that the construction would jeopardize vulnerable wetlands nearby, said Dahl. The man eventually lost his suit and has since moved from the neighborhood, according to town officials.

Then, a group of residents filed a legal challenge citing a technical violation of the bidding process.

Dahl said school officials sought guidance from the District Attorney's office in 1998 in navigating the state's newly amended bidding requirements. Although the plaintiffs were found to be correct, they did not halt the project. The attorney general's office agreed a minor violation had occurred, ''but it was in good faith," said Dahl.

Still, Hechenbleikner said the suits eventually cost the town. ''We lost money because we had to delay the project," he said. ''The cost [to build] was higher than it otherwise would have been. I'd say we lost a couple of million dollars."

Dahl said the town raised $2.5 million through a debt-exclusion override of Proposition 2 last year and the rest of the funding was obtained through bonds that did not require an override vote. Reading will get reimbursed for 66 percent of the cost of the school through the state's School Building Assistance program.

According to Dahl, the Wood End building was originally expected to open for the 2002-2003 school year. Instead, the first shovelful of earth was not turned until July 2003. Also, the first day of school was purposefully pushed to after Labor Day this year, instead of the week before as it usually is, to accommodate potential last-minute delays, Dahl said.

Last week, after the granting of the temporary occupancy permit, teacher Nancy Walcott prepared a spacious, sun-drenched classroom in the new school and joked about how different this year's kindergarten classroom will look from those of the past.

''I was in one of the portables at Barrows [school]," Walcott said, referring to one of the 30-year-old trailers the School Department relied upon to educate its burgeoning enrollment. ''The 'trailer park' is what we affectionately called it."

But after the school year ended in June, the trailers were officially closed, and Walcott, along with the other teachers and faculty of the Alice M. Barrows Elementary School began moving to the Wood End Elementary School.

Students from the Barrows school will be the first tenants at the Wood End, attending the 56,500-square-foot facility this year while the Barrows is undergoing major renovations. Then, next year, when the system has all five of its schools open, redistricting will determine who gets to go to the new school.

Located near the town forest in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs lined with Colonials, the two-story Wood End school with its floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed beams, and soothing earth tones reflects the architecture of small-town New England rather than that of a bustling Boston suburb.

''It looks like it belongs in Maine somewhere," said Gary Nihan who is assistant principal of Barrows School. ''The L.L. Bean School, we should have called it."

Instead the school takes its name from the moniker the town used before being incorporated as Reading in the 1600s. Other than this historical footnote, the new building, which is slated to open for the first day of school Tuesday, is all about looking forward, school officials said.

The school has a new gym and cafetorium -- part cafeteria and auditorium. It has skylights and sprinkler and ventilation systems.

The other four elementary schools were built before the state mandated such things as designated areas for special-education instruction, Dahl said. Like many communities in the state, Reading often emptied storage rooms or sectioned off a library corner to accommodate occupational therapy and other lessons in their four cramped elementary schools.

The Wood End Elementary School has space specifically designated for special education, as well as other special classes, which include art and music. Using these spaces for their intended purposes will have to wait another year, however. The size of the Barrows student body is based on a four-school system and fitting the students in means using all the rooms in the new school for classrooms.

Last week, some portions of the Barrows School were being demolished while parts of the interior were being gutted.

Asbestos removal and the construction of a new library and a gymnasium are components of a project to update the 40-year-old school, said Schettini. That project is expected to be completed in June. The School Committee hired about half a dozen buses -- a rare expenditure in this community of neighborhood schools -- to transport Barrows' pupils.

''We'll have a bus for the first time. We are so excited," said Maylynn Atallah, whose daughter Tarian will attend fourth grade in the new building. While Atallah supports the building of the new school, she believes the move to and from the new school in a year ''could be a distraction" for the pupils.

In October, Dahl said, the School Committee is scheduled to begin a redistricting plan that will determine which neighborhoods will regularly attend which elementary school. Atallah is certain the outcome will mean her youngest child will attend a different elementary school than his siblings.

''I'm assuming we'll get redistricted," she said, adding she is very happy with the Barrows School. ''But that's life and we'll get used to it."

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