West Bridgewater school plan faces key state approval vote
The proposal for a new Middle-Senior High School in West Bridgewater has entered a crucial phase, with the estimated $63.7 million project facing three key votes.
This Wednesday, the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s board is set to vote on whether to provide partial reimbursement for the project, which calls for constructing a 141,250-square-foot school on West Center Street, replacing the existing 7th- through 12th-grade school at that location.
Should the authority vote favorably, a special Town Meeting will be held Oct. 1 to authorize full funding for the project, subject to passage of a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, at an Oct. 6 special town election.
Even as they await action by the state board, local supporters are preparing to sell voters on a project that would mark the town’s first brand new school in more than four decades.
“This project is extremely important, not only for the students in West Bridgewater, but to the town as a whole,” school Superindendent Patricia B. Oakley said by e-mail.
Oakley said building the school would enable the town to address the existing building’s many deficiencies, which caused the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to place the school’s accredititation on warning status in 2009.
Having an accredited school, Oakley said, assures students, parents, and the colleges students might want to attend that the town has a quality educational program. But she said the reputation of a community also benefits “since the retention or loss of accreditation has a demonstrable effect on local property values.”
The School Building Authority has set 54.1 percent as the rate it would reimburse the town for eligible project costs if it approves funding, according to Gary Keith, chairman of the town’s School Building Committee.
He said the town will not have firm figures until after Wednesday’s meeting on its share of the overall $63.7 million project cost and the tax impact of the debt exclusion.
While conceding that residents are anxious about being asked to fund the project in the current economy, Oakley said she is cautiously optimistic they will agree to do so.
“I have been an educator in this town since 1987, and the town has always supported education to the fullest extent possible. . . . Although nobody likes tax increases, I believe that the people in this town realize the importance of investing in the future of our kids,” she said.
The current 105,480-square-foot Middle-Senior High School serves 610 middle and high school students. Opened in 1951, it includes a 20,000-square-foot addition built about a decade later, and a 2,000-square-foot addition in 2002.
The school shares the 21-acre campus with the town’s Spring Street School.
Keith said while the Middle-Senior High School has been well maintained, “the facilities in the school are woefully inadequate.” In particular, he said, it suffers from antiquated facilities for science and technology.
As an illustration, Keith noted that the science labs his three children used when they recently attended the school were the same ones that he, and his parents before him, used as students.
“That means three generations used the same science labs. You can’t tell me technology hasn’t changed in that period of time,” Keith said.
All the building’s mechanical systems are also outmoded “and there is no modern fire-protection system in the building,” Keith said. Other shortcomings include undersized classrooms, and core facilities – including the auditorium, media center, gym, and cafeteria — that are too small and in need of rehabilitation.
“It’s served its useful purpose, but it just doesn’t support the educational requirements we need today,” he said of the building.
Keith said not carrying out the project now would leave the town with an inadequate 61-year-old building and the prospect of having to eventually upgrade it without any assurance of state funds.
The town selected this project as its preferred option in a feasibility study of the school’s facility needs. The School Building Authority last January accepted the results of the study, moving the project into schematic design.
Keith said the town decided against renovating and expanding the existing school because that wouldn’t have been much cheaper than a new school and would have disrupted students much more during construction. He said a simple renovation would have also posed disruption and would not have addressed the school’s space needs.
In the plan now under consideration, a 625-student school would be built on the site of the current school’s athletic fields. When the new building is finished, the existing school would be razed and new athletic fields built there.
The Board of Selectmen has not taken a position on the project, but its chairwoman, Nancy J. Maloney, said she fully supports it.
“It’s a very exciting time,” said Maloney, a former School Committee member, calling the project “the thing that will keep us right at the top of the state, where we are, in our education.”
If the project clears its remaining hurdles, Keith said, construction would be targeted to begin in September 2013 and be completed in July 2015, with the overall project to be completed in January 2016.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.