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NORWOOD

School moving forward

Building could get underway in spring

An architectural rendering of the proposed Norwood High School, which is set for a vote at the March 23 Town Meeting. An architectural rendering of the proposed Norwood High School, which is set for a vote at the March 23 Town Meeting. (Architechure Involution LLC)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2009
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School officials are telling Norwood residents there will be lots to like about a brand new high school, including high-tech science labs and an auditorium designed for music.

But more than that, School Committee chairman Paul Samargedlis said, students who pass through the doors of the proposed $73.9 million facility will feel renewed pride in their town.

"And they'll know that adults really cared about them," he said.

After years of hoping, planning, and at times disagreeing, residents could soon see construction of a new high school. But first, they'll have to vote this spring to participate in the state's Model Schools program, and then agree to pony up their share of the cost.

Under a plan announced by the state early this month, the town would fund about $30 million. (The town also expects to spend more than $5 million for sports fields, artificial turf, and bleachers that aren't included in the state plan.)

Last Tuesday, a majority of selectmen met and officially sanctioned an agreement with the Massachusetts School Building Authority that calls for recycling a set of plans from the 5-year-old Whitman-Hanson Regional High School.

By using another district's plans and specs, the cost of what would have been a $100 million project could be reduced, said state Treasurer Timothy Cahill.

"We're paying 59.21 percent, and Norwood pays the rest," said Cahill, who oversees the MSBA. "But the real story is that because the town embraced the Model Schools principle, it will save $30 million for the state and Norwood taxpayers."

A vote is set for the March 23 Town Meeting, followed by an April 6 vote to raise property taxes in order to finance the town's portion of the deal.

Like Samargedlis, most town and school officials are thrilled with the opportunity, believing a good deal might get even better if construction bids - and interest rates - come in lower than expected.

"It's very exciting and we're looking forward to being the first out of the gate," said selectmen chairman Michael Lyons, when the state announced the deal. "In the bigger picture, this is something we've been working toward for five years."

And not a moment too soon, some say, as outdated facilities make it impossible to offer a state-of-the-art education. A school to accommodate 1,100 students would be built just behind the existing school.

The 245 Nichols St. structure, designed by William Upham, is on the town's list of the 100 most important historic buildings. Once the school's doors open in 2011, however, the Upham building would be demolished.

Architects' renderings for the new school show elements of the historic building, including its elegant white columns and lofty bell tower.

Officials said that would not only preserve Norwood's personality, but also help assuage those who believe the current, 1920s-era building is too precious to be lost.

A residents group called the Norwood Common Sense Committee has fought the school proposal, arguing that history - and money - can be saved by renovating the existing building, or preserving it for another purpose.

Selectwoman Helen Donohue agrees. She cast the lone opposing voice in Tuesday's 4-1 vote.

"The concept of a model school is a very good one because it is economically sound," Donohue said. "What is not good is the fact a beautiful, well-constructed building may be destroyed to comply with the model school concept."

Donohue provided statistics that showed the Nichols Street building has been assessed at $5.99 million and, with a little creativity, could serve as a nursing home, an apartment complex, or even an office building. It's irresponsible to knock it down, she said.

A new school could sit on about 30-plus acres of available land at one of several area schools, she said. All that's needed is six clear acres for the building, she said.

"They are going ahead like steamrollers, but it's up to the voters who will have to pay for it," Donohue said. "They think they have everything sewn up. I don't think so. I go to the supermarket and people ask me where this thought came from when we're in a huge, economic depression."

For the average single-family home assessed at $386,000, the project (including the sports facilities) would raise property taxes an average of $150 a year for 24 years, officials estimate.

Cahill, meanwhile, stressed the savings and noted that "Norwood will be able to begin construction this spring, a year ahead of schedule."

Wilbraham's Minnechaug Regional High School, based on plans from the 3-year-old Ashland High School, is next up in the program.

The state is still working with another six candidates that are interested in the pilot high-school program, he said.

In addition, Cahill said, MSBA Executive Director Katherine Craven is planning a Model Schools pilot for elementary schools next. "It's all exciting news," he said.

But for all the talk about facilities, one current Norwood High student preferred to emphasize the people at the school.

"Some parts, like the biology and chemistry labs, were really out of date," aid Jesse Shaughnessy, who is president of the Class of 2009. But Shaughnessy, a professed "townie" whose parents also attended the school, said he wouldn't trade his experience.

"I'm the last person in my family to graduate from this school, which is pretty neat and special," he said. "And the kids who go to the new school will have pretty much everything I did."

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net

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