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Construction delays opening of school for some Needham students

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 7, 2011 05:34 PM

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Construction on modular classrooms at the Pollard School is behind schedule, and will push back the start of the school year for some of the Needham's youngest students, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst told parents this week.

Kindergarteners who attend the Newman School had been scheduled to start school Thursday in their temporary digs at the Pollard Middle School. But renovations of the modular classrooms intended to house them are running behind schedule, forcing the district to push back the beginning of the school year to Tuesday, Sept. 13, Gutekanst said. Preschoolers won't start at the temporary quarters until Thursday, Sept.15.

Kindergarteners and preschoolers at other schools are not affected by the change, and older students at Newman (grades one through five) will start school on time Thursday at the Newman site.

The Newman School is in the midst of extensive renovations that will modernize its heating system and add air conditioning to the school for the first time. The $27.4 million project, sparked by the discovery several years ago of extensive debris in the school's aging ductwork, also include the refurbishment of the main office, cafeteria, kitchen, auditorium and electrical system. The state is providing $8.5 million, while a tax override passed is paying for the rest.

While students grade one and above remain at the Newman site in brand new modular classrooms, younger students will spend the next year at the "Newman at Pollard" site, occupying modular classrooms that until recently were vacant or underutilized.

The new Newman building is expected to be completed in time for the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. The new modular units at Newman will be dismantled by the developer and used elsewhere in the region.

While Needham usually begins classes before Labor Day, Gutekanst said the district decided several years ago to start this year a week later than normal to give contractors more time. However, the delayed start for Newman kindergarteners and preschoolers was not expected.

Gutekanst said that developers are working furiously to finish prepping modular classrooms at the Newman at Pollard site. That space had to be adapted for its new, littler occupants. Bathrooms were modified, accessibility was improved, and space was subdivided to create room for the special education and nurse's offices.

The contractor at the Pollard site, where repairs are also being made to the middle school's roof, has done a "quality job" according to Gutekanst, who insisted there was no mismanagement.

"There are a lot of moving pieces and parts at Pollard this summer," he said. "Everyone's been working super hard and fast. The contractor is trying to finish their punch list. We want to give teachers a chance to get their classrooms ready for the kids, and we think we'll get there in a couple days."

Jodi Rooney, a Needham parent and former teacher whose 3-year-old son is a preschooler at Newman, said she wasn't too concerned about the delays.

"I think the decision was a smart one," she said. "I don't want to send my child to a school that's not prepared."

Rooney said that while she is a work-at-home mom with the flexibility to accommodate the unexpected change in schedule, others were less lucky.

"I do know parents who are frustrated. I heard from two people were like, 'now what am I going to do?'," said Rooney. "Most working families don't have a backup for child care."

Gutekanst said he understood parents' frustration, but it was the only option the town had.

"I'm disappointed. I'm sorry we've had to inform parents of the delay. But frankly, I'd rather have them be disappointed now, than say, come in before we're ready and have them be frustrated or disappointed or critical because we're not ready. i know they have busy lives, they're professionals, they have to find daycare. In the end, the right thing to do is have the school ready so parents feel comfortable sending their kids there and they can have a great experience."

Rooney praised the school for notifying her and other parents effectively, saying that everyone got the news quickly thanks to various email lists.

Gutekanst said that while the delay was regrettable and the project has "been a journey," safety was paramount.

"For me, health and safety and security is a priority for all the kids. That's job one. We will not have students in those buildings if they're not healthy, safe and secure. I like that everyone's focused on that. But, we also need to get school started. You want to tell everyone to hurry up, but in the end we're going to do the safe thing."

Dan Adams can be reached

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