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Newman repairs may get help from the state

Posted by Kathryn Eident  February 26, 2009 07:50 AM

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Temporary heating and ventilation ducts criss-cross the Newman Elementary School media center.

By Kathryn Eident
Globe Correspondent

The Newman Elementary School’s heating and ventilation system may be replaced with help from the state’s school building agency.

School and town officials met with representatives from the Massachusetts School Building Authority Wednesday to inspect the school and discuss design and funding options.

“Today surprised and pleased me,” Katherine Craven, the authority’s executive director said after touring the building. “It’s a credit to Needham that everything is well maintained compared to other districts.”

Needham applied for a school building authority grant last summer to defray the estimated $15 to $20 million price tag for replacing the failed heating and ventilation system in the Newman School. The site visit is the first step in deciding how and if the authority can collaborate with the town on the project.

“I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the $20 million,” Craven said. “But when I saw the daylight coming in through these windows, I knew we wouldn’t be able to recreate that building again.”

The building authority, an independent state agency formed in 2004, awards grants to municipalities for school repairs, renovations and building projects.

Grants are awarded by a formula based on factors including the district’s population, property value, and project design. The grants usually cover between 40 and 80 percent of a project’s estimated costs and are funded by a portion of the state sales tax, Craven said.

Authority officials, seated in the school’s media center beneath temporary ventilation ducts, listened as school Superintendent Dan Gutekanst presented them with the town’s attempts at addressing the air quality issues.

“We tackled, as best we could, the problem,” Superintendent Dan Gutekanst told officials. “Needham has been very careful to follow MSBA guidelines and be thoughtful for student safety.”

The problems at the Newman School first arose in 2004 when teachers and students began complaining of rashes, eye irritation and respiratory problems. In response, the town began conducting air quality tests and asked the Department of Public Health to inspect the building, Gutekanst said.

“We believe it’s from the vents but a correlation hasn’t been made,” he said.

The school, which houses about 750 pre-kindergarten to fifth grade students, was built in 1961 with an underground heating and ventilation system.

The town spent $300,000 last summer to improve the air quality by installing a temporary heating and ventilation system, replacing carpeting, and removing trees believed to also be causing respiratory and allergy problems.

The town also spent $350,000 on a feasibility study that so far has determined the building structure and foundation to be in good condition apart from the failed heating and ventilation system.

Needham’s proactive approach to identifying and addressing the issues will help make the grant approval process smoother, Craven said.

“We can each be on the same fast track,” she said about the project. “There are no deal breakers yet.”

Needham is still weighing a variety of construction options and temporary school spaces. The next step is to narrow those options down and choose a project manager.

“It will come down to what will be safe for the students and a good learning environment,” Gutekanst said. “We want the problem to be solved at Newman.”

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