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Funds for elementary school renovations move forward

Posted by Tom Coakley  April 29, 2010 09:55 PM

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Lexington Town Meeting has moved forward on plans to renovate two aging elementary schools, the first of several school building projects planned over the next 10 years.

But some residents are saying the town should invest in new buildings instead of renovations.

During Monday night’s session, Town Meeting members authorized spending $750,000 on design and engineering costs for repairs and upgrades to the Bowman and Bridge elementary schools. The project’s total price tag is expected to top more than $11.6 million.

Supporters say the school buildings, built in the 1960s, are structurally sound, and performing the badly needed fixes as soon as possible makes sense, especially since it is unlikely the town could get state reimbursement for two new schools, or even for the renovations.

‘‘It’s never a good time to ask the town for money,’’ said the school district’s superintendent, Paul B. Ash, ‘‘but we need to fix this.’’ And, with the cost of a new school approaching $25 million, he said, replacing Bowman and Bridge would not be fiscally responsible.

Still, others said that town officials had previously promised new schools, and that spending money on aging old buildings is not the right solution.

‘‘I can’t support $750,000 to renovate buildings that need to be replaced,’’ former selectwoman Dawn McKenna said during the Town Meeting discussion.

‘‘My issue is that we’re designing a project around state funding instead of the project we should be doing,’’ she said in an interview after the meeting.

Last fall, the town’s Ad Hoc School Facilities Committee recommended renovating the two schools, and applying for state funding to renovate and expand Lexington High School and replace Estabrook Elementary School.

Bridge and Bowman were built in 1966 and 1967 by the same architect and share many problems, said Pat Goddard, Lexington’s public facilities director. The buildings are structurally sound and have good layouts, he said. But their outdated mechanical systems, oil-fired boilers, and ductwork create ventilation and heating problems in classrooms.

The renovations would install more efficient natural gas heaters, replace the windows, and bring the buildings up to modern accessibility and fire codes, Goddard said. Bowman’s leaking roof would also be replaced.

Previous plans to replace the schools are no longer feasible, according to Goddard and members of the ad hoc committee, who cited changes in the process through which the state contributes to school building projects. The Massachusetts School Building Authority allows districts to submit one school project at a time, and the guidelines for receiving reimbursement for expenses are more stringent, the committee said in its report to Town Meeting.

Emily Mahlman, a spokeswoman for the state authority, said communities can submit more than one project but the agency asks them to choose a priority. She could not say how likely funding would be for the Bridge and Bowman projects. If such a project was approved, it would be reimbursed at a base rate of 33.9 percent, with additional points for renovation.

In its report, the ad hoc committee recommended ‘‘that Bowman and Bridge be renovated due to the low likelihood of either school being approved to receive MSBA funds for either renovation or a total replacement.’’

A plan to renovate and expand Lexington High School, including roof replacement, and a 45,000-square-foot expansion to relieve overcrowding, is more likely to receive state funding, Goddard said. The school system submitted a statement of interest on the project to the School Building Authority earlier this year.

The other project slated for state assistance, a replacement for Estabrook Elementary, which was built in 1961, would probably come before Town Meeting in 2013, he said. A replacement for 55-year-old Hastings Elementary could follow. Goddard said the two buildings have structural problems, and Estabrook lacks a cafeteria.

Staff and parents at the Bowman and Bridge schools say the renovations are badly needed.

Bowman principal Mary Anton said the staff at the school would ‘‘love to have a brand new building, but we’re recognizing that our building has a lot of good bones.’’

She added that the school’s boilers ‘‘look like something out of a train steam engine.’’

Recent flooding in the boiler room left the building was without heat for several days.

With the repairs, which would include replacing the noisy ventilation system and two 25-year-old portable classrooms, ‘‘the school will continue to serve us well,’’ Anton said.

Mary Ellen Alessandro, co-president of the Bridge School’s parent-teacher association, said students complain of headaches from the building’s stale, stuffy air.

‘‘The air doesn’t circulate properly..... It’s a real problem for kids who have asthma,’’ she said.

Opening the windows is not a solution, a problem too, Alessandro said, because they don’t have screens and some children have bee allergies.

However, Selectman Peter C.J. Kelley told Town Meeting that he voted against recommending the renovation projectsard ‘‘not because Bridge and Bowman don’t need attention, but because they need much more.’’

Kelley said renovating the buildings ‘‘won’t reach the high energy-efficiency standards that Lexington has committed to.’’ He added that the cost of new buildings would ultimately favorably compare to the renovations.

‘‘We can’t afford not to build new,’’ he said.

Jonathan Himmel, the town’s Permanent Building Committee representative on the ad hoc panel, spoke in favor of the renovations.

‘‘To tear down a serviceable building is not green,’’ he said. ‘‘To renovate ..... is a lot more green.’’

But McKenna said she doubts that the town will approve raising taxes, through a Proposition 2 1/2 override, to pay for the work, through a debt-exclusion override to fund the project.

‘‘I don’t see the town voting for debt exclusion for the project, when we just did a large high school renovation, and we’re not building new schools like we promised the town,’’ she said.

If everything stays on schedule, Town Meeting would be asked to approve the project next spring, in conjunction with a townwide vote on the debt-exclusion override. vote on the renovation project next year, with a debt exclusion override vote following. Plans call for the renovations to be completed before the start of classes in the fall of 2012, Goddard said.

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