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School project faces two key votes

State aid hinges on town funding

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2011

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The proposed construction of a new high school in Wilmington has entered a key phase, with the $82.7 million project facing two critical town votes.

Last Wednesday, the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s board agreed to provide partial reimbursement for the project, which calls for replacing the old Church Street high school building with a new one on the same site.

The action is contingent on the town authorizing full funding for the project within 120 days.

At a Dec. 6 special election, the town will take up a proposed debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, and if approved, residents would pay for a share of the costs.

Then at a Dec. 10 Special Town Meeting, residents will vote on appropriating the full project budget minus $1.13 million authorized last year for design and project management services.

Passage of the debt exclusion would add $164 to the annual tax bill of an average single-family home valued at $357,000 over the 25-year debt period, according to town manager Michael Caira.

After several years of planning, school officials are expressing hopes that townspeople will embrace the plan.

“This project is about more than just a new high school. It is about Wilmington’s future,’’ School Superintendent Joanne Benton said in an e-mail. “Our students deserve a building that will provide them with a 21st century education so that they can leave the high school prepared to enter a global society.’’

If the project goes forward, the school building authority would cover 55.2 percent, or up to $37.99 million, of the $68.8 million in costs eligible for reimbursement, according to Jeffery Luxenberg of Joslin, Lesser + Associates, the firm selected as project manager by the town.

Based on an overall project budget of $82.7 million, the state’s share would effectively be 45.9 percent.

Officials say the existing high school, which was built in 1950 with five subsequent additions, is in need of replacement.

“Many of the systems are beyond their useful life,’’ Luxenberg said, referring to the heating, ventilation, electrical, and plumbing systems.

He said the classrooms are also smaller than current guidelines allow, and the building is not able to accommodate the full technology the school would like to offer.

The 154,000-square-foot building is also too small to meet the current needs of the school, which has about 970 students.

The project calls for a new 192,944-square-foot building designed to accommodate the current enrollment, which is not expected to increase in the coming years.

The new building would be situated to the left of the existing one, fronting on Church Street and extending back to the football field. The current building would be razed.

In addition to providing a gym, a cafeteria, an auditorium, and a media center, the building would feature spaces designed for students to work in teams on interdisciplinary projects. There would also be an outdoor central courtyard available for various academic and extra-curricular activities.

The town conducted a feasibility study and also considered renovating the existing school, and renovating and expanding it. The building authority in July accepted the district’s preference to build and moved the project into schematic design.

“It really was the most cost-effective option,’’ Luxenberg said of new construction.

He said renovation would be costly because the layout of the building and size of the classrooms do not meet the school’s needs.

With renovation, he said the town would also incur the cost of housing students in temporary modular units.

Luxenberg said the site contains some oil residue from an accidental spill in the 1980s. But he said the town would not have to remove it as part of the project, since it is relatively deep underground - about 14 feet - and no structure would be built on top of it. The area would be included in a new paved parking lot.

Caira said he believes the project would be a benefit “certainly to the children of Wilmington and I think to the community as a whole.’’

“We have a tired, outdated building that is 61 years old. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to garner $38 million in state funding that might not otherwise be available.’’ He said the town is also in “a pretty solid financial position’’ and thus has “the financial capability to fund this.’’

Luxenberg said that Dore & Whittier Architects of Newburyport, which worked with his firm and a town building committee to prepare the feasibility study, submitted the schematic design to the school building authority in early October.

Should voters approve funding, the town would begin immediately to prepare final design and construction bid documents.

That work would take about a year to complete, but Luxenberg said preliminary construction, including site work and laying the new foundation, could begin as early as next summer.

The new school would be scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, when the existing school would be demolished.