Getting that sinking feeling...

In the nine years since it opened, Lynn Classical High has lost inches to the soft ground. Here's the $14m fix.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

LYNN - Jackhammers and power saws tear through the library and classrooms at Classical High School. Walls are gone, rugs and tiles cut into scrap. The concrete floor soon will be dust.

The work is part of a $14 million plan to keep Classical High School from sinking. The three-story school, built on the site of an old dump, has dropped as much as 7 inches into soft ground since it opened in 1999.

The concrete slab on the first floor was not properly supported by steel pilings. The sinking slab caused walls to crumble, doors to scrape, and floors to buckle. Problems from the project triggered massive litigation and intense state scrutiny over the past three years.

The first floor has been gutted. Electrical systems have been rewired. In June, 25 new steel pilings will be driven into the ground. A new concrete slab will be put down, and then the library, classrooms, principal's office, and other rooms will be rebuilt.

The city of Lynn, which received 90 percent state funding to build Classical, is paying for the reconstruction. Much of the cost is covered by an $8.8 million settlement the city accepted from Symmes Maini & McKee Associates of Cambridge, the school's architect, and GZA GeoEnvironmental of Norwood, which provided ground analysis. They were among 11 companies Lynn sued in Superior Court, alleging negligence and breach of contract.

The city also reached a settlement with several other firms named in the suit, and received about $300,000 more, said George Markopoulos, a city lawyer. More litigation is pending. "We're still vigorously pursuing this matter," he said.

The city also is using $5 million in bonds plus other smaller budget appropriations for the project. "I'm confident everyone's financial interest will be protected," said Lynn Mayor Edward J. Clancy Jr., who was not the mayor when Classical was built. "When we're through, Classical should be an anchor for the neighborhood, and community, for years to come."

By a 5-2 vote in 2001, the Lynn School Committee formerly voted to accept the new Classical building, a requirement to start the state reimbursement.

"We were told that things were going along fine, and that the building was just settling," recalled Loretta Cuffe O'Donnell, who was then the committee's vice chairwoman. She voted with the majority to accept the school. "As a School Committee person, you rely on what the people working for you tell you. We didn't want to lose the state reimbursement."

The second time around, Classical will be built to last, Clancy said. "Absolutely, this is a permanent fix."

"The engineers have assured us that this will work," added Michael Donovan, the city's building commissioner. "Even as the ground continues to settle, as we know it will, the slab will remain in place."

The state's School Building Authority is closely watching.

"I don't think the state has seen anything like Classical in the last 20 years," said Katherine Craven, executive director of the authority. "Hopefully, we will not see it again."

The authority was established two years ago to improve the state's costly school construction program. New rules limit state investment to 40 to 80 percent of a project's total cost. They also require more state and local oversight, such as having a project manager on site 40 hours per week.

But Classical, which cost $37.3 million, was built under the former, more generous, school building program. With 90 percent state reimbursement, Lynn has received $26.9 million since 1998, and reimbursement is scheduled to continue until 2017, according to the School Building Authority.

No new state money is being used to fix Classical. But the state could withhold future payments if officials are not satisfied with the reconstruction.

That isn't likely, Craven said. "We're not interested in penalizing Lynn. Our goal is to make sure Lynn fixes the building, so that they won't come back to us in another five or six years. . . . I think they're on that path."

Until reconstruction is completed, Classical has had to adjust to life in a sinking building.

First-floor classrooms, along with the library and guidance office, have been closed this year. The library temporarily moved to the "fish bowl," a room with a glass wall in the first-floor foyer, an area that will be addressed in a later phase of the reconstruction. The guidance office moved to an old art room.

Classes are held on the second and third floors, which have not been damaged. Since the building's footprint is supported by pilings, the top two floors have not been affected by the sinking slab, Donovan said.

The most dramatic change at the 1,225-student school involves the relocation of ninth-graders.

To reduce the number of students in the school during major construction, freshmen will attend classes at the old Classical High on Lynn Common through the next school year.

"It's been a challenging time," said Warren White, the school principal. "But we all know it's only temporary. And when this is over, we'll have a better building."

CBI Consulting Inc. of Boston, the construction management firm, is on the job every day. Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, the Waltham firm that studied the building for three years, is the project engineer. Work is done at night, so as not to disrupt the school day.

A safety plan requires 24-hour air-quality monitoring, and a separate ventilation system has been installed in the work area. "No air leaves here," Donovan said, surrounded by piles of rubble on the work site.

There's no immediate plan to fix the gymnasium, which has sunk as much as 2.5 inches. "The gym floor is highly expensive," Donovan said. "The gym now is still usable."

Bids on the first two phases were 10 to 20 percent less than budgeted, Donovan said. The third phase, which involves putting down pilings and pouring new concrete, is estimated to cost $6 million. Bids on that phase are due to be opened May 8.

"If our bids continue to come in low, then the project could expand," Donovan said.

And if everything goes according to plan, the whole job will be finished for the start of a new school year in September 2009.

"That's the day we're all waiting for," said White. "Our freshmen will be home. Our school will be all back together."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at

Freshmen get their own space at the old Classical High. Page 6.

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