Schools race for science grant

Outdated science labs at Medford and Melrose high schools would be replaced as part of a $60 million plan by the Massachusetts School Building Authority to usher in a new era in science education at 10 public high schools.

Officials in each city are racing to meet an aggressive timetable set by the authority for its Science Laboratory Initiative. The state is using federal stimulus dollars to provide grants to reimburse school districts a percentage of the projects’ cost. Medford is due to receive just under 60 percent, and Melrose 51 percent, local officials said.

The two school districts, along with Saugus, were selected in June to submit feasibility studies to the authority.

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But Saugus’s hopes for new science labs were dashed in July at a Special Town Meeting. An article seeking $250,000 to fund the feasibility study was returned to the School Committee, with instructions to notify the state of the town’s interest in building a new high school. The district was set to receive a 53 percent reimbursement rate from the authority for the science initiative.

“We thought this was a great opportunity but the town meeting didn’t agree,” said Wendy Reed, School Committee chairwoman. “I notified the state the day after the vote. They’d like us now to explain in writing what happened.”

Daniel Collins, a spokesman for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, did not return calls seeking comment.

Medford and Melrose’s feasibility studies are due by November, when the authority is expected to take a final vote to approve plans. Construction is to be completed by September, 2013, according to the authority’s guidelines.

The Medford City Council is expected to meet this month to consider a $13.8 million bond authorization to finance the labs. The Melrose Board of Aldermen took a first step in June, when it approved $153,000 for its feasibility study. “It’s all moved pretty quickly,” said Denise Gaffey, the Melrose city planner who is working with the School Building Committee to oversee the project. “We’ve been working hard to meet every deadline.”

“Time really is critical,” Medford School Superintendent Roy Belson said at a special School Committee meeting called last Monday to discuss project options. “The key thing for us now is to build the best labs possible.”

Each city has worked with state-appointed architects to develop projects that meet the state’s key goal: Develop flexible space that can be used to teach chemistry, biology, physics, and other sciences. Smart boards, laptop carts, routers, and portable lab tables are common features in modern labs.

Melrose proposes to renovate 18,000 square feet. “It’s a fairly signficant amount of space that wasn’t touched when we did other renovations to the school,” Gaffey said.

The area will be divided into 11 spaces that will function as labs, classroom space, and lecture areas. “We’re pretty confident that [the authority] will accept our design,” Gaffey said.

Melrose does not yet have a final estimate on the project’s cost. Construction is estimated at $250 a square foot, she said.

In Medford, the School Committee last Monday voted to select two design options to replace the original labs at Medford High School. Each plan would cost $13.8 million, and calls for building eight new labs and renovating nine existing labs. A new roof would be built over the entire 42,000 square foot lab area, located on the third floor of the building. But only one option includes replacing windows on the third floor.

“This is a great opportunity to improve our lab space and our educational offerings,” said Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, the School Committee chairman. “It’s important that we lock in the [reimbursement] rate.”

Medford will submit whichever plan the City Council chooses to fund.