Despite economy, high school plans moving forward

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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Town officials are forging ahead with plans to renovate Franklin's aging high school building, while realizing that the economy's downturn could affect their ability to pay for the project.

The town submitted a refreshed proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority this month, specifying problems with the 37-year-old building and providing additional details on enrollment projections, the educational goals of a potential renovation, and past examples of the town's commitment to building maintenance.

In addition, several Franklin officials, including Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting and Town Council chairman Chris Feeley, met with the building authority's executive director, Katherine Cra ven, to identify Franklin's most pressing needs. Craven called the encounter "very positive."

"This is really the kickoff with Franklin," Craven said. Prior to the informational meeting, she said, "we thought their building was in pretty good shape" compared with some of the older school buildings in the state, but a building like Franklin's high school, constructed in the 1970s, is likely to receive more attention as the authority decides how to distribute construction funds.

The activity with the building authority and other moves to deal with the high school building's problems are taking place against a backdrop of fiscal uncertainties.

"Unfortunately, the MSBA funding is linked to state funding and, due to the economic downturn, we anticipate fewer projects being funded in the coming year," said the Franklin school district's assistant superintendent, Maureen Sabolinski.

The economy's effect on the authority's ability to distribute funds is not yet clear, Craven said, but it will continue to assess needs and make funding decisions as before.

"Our funding stream has never been as rich as it's supposed to be, so we've always been preparing for the worst," Craven said. The authority will focus its funding on "common sense" areas, such as core educational facilities, while asking communities to cover more of the costs of "boutique" aspects, such as football fields, she said.

Franklin officials said that while the poor economy might mean taxpayers are less likely to approve higher taxes, it is important that the town start the process of trying to acquire state funds for the high school project.

"I'm obviously concerned about asking taxpayers to reach deeper into their pockets to support buildings projects, but it wouldn't be wise to step away," said School Committee chairman Jeffrey Roy. "Whereas I understand the economic reality and the pressures there . . . we can't lose focus on the bigger picture. We have to keep our eyes on fixing the building."

Earlier this year the New England Association of Schools and Colleges placed Franklin High School on "warning" status due in part to concerns over its lack of handicapped accessibility. Franklin applied for the state's school-building reimbursement program last year, but the town's request was not among the 83 projects named by the building authority as leading candidates for $2.5 billion in state funding to be handed out over a five-year span.

An architectural study commissioned by the town presented four options for either renovating or rebuilding the high school. Town officials believe that local taxpayers would not pay for a proposed $100 million renovation or a $130 million new high school on their own, prompting them to turn to the building authority for funding.

Sabolinski, who will become superintendent when Wayne Ogden steps down at the end of the school year, has been working with the authority to strengthen Franklin's proposal.

The new proposal includes updated enrollment projections that were derived from student information forms, town building permits, birth rates, and other documents, Sabolinski said. The town provided the raw data to the building authority, which uses its own formula to determine enrollment projections.

Sabolinski said the authority's projections are lower than those used by Franklin officials, perhaps because the authority's method might not properly capture the town's likely population growth. However, the information from all of the school districts competing for funds "is being assessed on the same playing field, and that's fair and equitable," she said.

Craven acknowledged that there is a "disagreement" between the authority and Franklin regarding enrollment numbers, and said that the authority will continue working with the town to resolve it.

The authority plans to have members of its own staff walk through the high school and offer fix-up suggestions, particularly to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. "There may be ways of solving the ADA compliance issues that haven't been thought of locally," Craven said. Some of the agency's employees "have 30 years experience planning urban schools in tight places, and it's interesting to see their perspective."

The town is continuing to study the needs of the building as well. The Town Council appointed a 15-person School Building Committee in September to examine options for renovating the high school, and to review other potential building projects in town. The committee includes representatives from the Town Council and School Committee, school and town officials, and seven community members with experience in civil architecture, engineering, and risk management.

High school principal Pamela Gould, a member of the committee, said that several members toured the building a couple of weeks ago to take stock of the areas that need attention, and get a better sense of which issues can be more easily fixed and which might require a larger overhaul.

"There's a good cross-representation of people on the committee," Gould said, noting that architects and engineers offer perspectives on a building that educators might not possess.

School board chairman Roy said that the tour "raised a lot of eyebrows.

"The architects and engineers could really see some of the issues involved that need attention."

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