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$80 Million to Renovate the High School? Well ...

Note in capital budget doc indicates an interest in the future of Belmont High School's building.

The handout provided by the to the at its weekly Tuesday meeting, Jan. 31, was the standard request for capital improvements for the coming fiscal year, a "wish list" document of 23 proposed projects to be presented to the Capital Budget Committee for review. 

There is $60,000 for the third-phase of network switching equipment, a pickup truck for $30,000, replace the interior corridor fire doors at the High School pegged at $40,000 and $79,579,984 for the renovation of

Come again? What's that about renovating the high school and for how much? 

In reality, the nearly $80 million in "capital need" in the document has everything to do with the future than the here and now, according to the school committee and department officials.

According to School Committee Chairwoman Laurie Graham, it is no secret that the 42-year-old high school is in need of improvement as indicated by consecutive state accreditation reviews by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) which have been highly critical of the existing physical plant.

A decade ago, in 2002, the NEASC flagged the high school for "growing physical deficiencies" that was affecting learning and teaching.

With that in mind, the School Department has resubmitted a statement of interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority – the quasi-independent governmental authority that provided $12.5 million in funding for the construction of the $39 million Wellington Elementary School – that the department wants to be "in the conversation" when the MSBA begins its next round of reviews, said Graham.

On the back burner

"We are interested in doing something at the high school and we want to keep this alive but everyone should know that this is on the back burner," said Graham after the meeting. 

Graham said that the amount in the document is the value of 200,000 square-foot building "but that doesn't mean that we are even considering spending that much." 

Before any funding would be considered, the MSBA will come and conduct a site review at the school at which time they will determine what the state believes would be the most prudent action to take.

Under consideration will be the creation of a new science wing, renovating the building, committing to a gut-rehab of the structure or go with a complete tear down and construct a new school. 

But Belmont isn't at that stage of the process, said Graham. 

But School Committee member Dan Scharfman called into question capital repairs to the high school, such as $150,000 for the replacement of the gymnasium floor, if the school is to be renovated in the near future.

"Yes, it may be necessary" to replace the existing vinyl floor that is considered barely suitable for games, "or can we wait and preserve the funds" and use them elsewhere," Scharfman said. 

In the end, the capital budget request totaling $1,810,000 was conditionally approved, along with the note concerning a $80 million renovation. 

PJ Looney February 02, 2012 at 04:21 AM
After 2011 one would think the only thing we need in Town is a single use over-sized pimped out new Library. Renovating or replacing the HS, Police Station, or Maintenance Depot are higher priorities for me and I think the voters should be made aware of all these needs and projected costs before voting on any future debt exclusion. It would be fantastic to have a non binding question on election day to prioritize the projects and use that feedback to move forward with debt exclusions when appropriate. Anyways good to see the SC taking a seat at the table and providing some transparency about upcoming capital needs.
John Bowe February 02, 2012 at 01:35 PM
Yes, for BHS, a science wing plus renovation is the best approach. The $80M number is in line with the very thorough evaluation and study done a 6-8 years ago, putting it at a bit above $60M then. Most of the building's systems' expected lifespans were in the 15-25 year range, and we should be pleased with what we got out of them and how the school facilities people have managed them. Such a project could be phased fairly easily, with minimal disruption to the students. The Maint Depot is a huge potential problem (and current disgrace) that is out of sight, and out of mind, unfortunately. The police building ranks right down there too.
Ann Rittenburg February 02, 2012 at 02:50 PM
None of this info is new. Last year's capital budget request from the schools says “Note: An existing capital need for the School Department is the renovation of BHS (FY08 estimate of $62,353,000 + 5% annual inflation FY09-12).” If one takes that estimate of $62.353,000 in FY08 dollars (an estimate developed and presented in 2004, when the master plan for BHS [authorized by TM in 2003], was completed) and adds 5% annual inflation for FY09-FY13, one gets the $79,579,984 figure cited. Town Meeting Members are reminded annually of the need to renovate BHS, along with the estimates regarding cost, in the Capital Budget Committee's report to TM. Belmont submitted an "SOI" to the MSBA for renovation of BHS the moment the moratorium on school building projects was lifted in 2006 and has resubmitted every year since then, as required. The bigger question to me is about the viability of the proposed new library. The proposal submitted by the Board of Library Trustees to the state last year, which is now on the waiting list of projects to be funded by the state, hinged on the BOS' belief that the BHS athletic field space taken by the new library project could be replaced elsewhere in town. The BOS/BMLB, at the time, were in discussion with the owners of the Purecoat property about a potential purchase and were imaging an option of replacing the field space lost to the library project over there. With the Purecoat deal now dead, is the proposed library project even viable?
John Bowe February 02, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Would replacing the skating rink with a new one at another site (eg, former incinerator on Concord Ave?) free up enough field space to make a library at that site work out? We occasionally hear of ideas for private funding and management of a new rink, but it does not move beyond that.
Frank French February 02, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Let's look at incorporating the Library on the proposed renovated High School site .. Maybe even a combining of staff ??? Plenty of parking !!!
PJ Looney February 02, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Frank... Amen!
Matt Sullivan February 03, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Good point Frank but they have mentioned that for safety reasons they don't want to have the Town Library in a school building. Regarding the mention of a new High School. This was a complete shock to me Tuesday night when I heard this at the School Committe meeting. Last I heard over the summer was talk of a new science wing. Maybe if the consolidation of Buildings and Grounds for the Town & School buildings was done years ago when it was first discussed and studied to death by two different committees the buildings in town would be in better shape.
John Bowe February 03, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Frank & PJ - Know of any other towns who have done this (combined library with a school, or anything else)? Most in Belmont would think it's too risky to be the first to try. This can't be a surprise to most. A complete, phased renovation has been the plan from the start, for at least 6 years, with the science wing being first. With the unlikelihood of funding for a complete renovation, the School Committee would have been happy with the first phase for the first 10 years. That would be about $20M (2005 dollars?) for the wing and some other systems replacement. Technical note: If the MSBA gives money for a building, you can't apply for more for that building for 10 years. Do you all know that the combined B&G effort calls for and ADDED position for FY13? They're budgeting an EXTRA $100,000 for just 10 months (starting Oct). Long-term, the role is a good idea. For operating budgets over the next few years, it won't help at all. I think Town Meeting members voted for this with an over-simplistic view, thinking we'd combine positions and magically free $75-100k/year. This new position is still a good idea from a building management and planning point of view, assuming we heed his advice and invest appropriately and not try to do things on the cheap, short-term.
Frank French February 03, 2012 at 01:19 PM
John ,I do not know of anyone else combining school library & public services and I don't disagree that it would be that well received by those that work in that profession .Just a thought that I believed made some common sense !! As far as safety is concerned ,in this day and age we are forced to put stricter security measures in place in all public facilities .
Matt Sullivan February 03, 2012 at 03:52 PM
John, as I'm sure you know I was the one who drafted the article and collected the signatures to put this issue before the Specal Town Meeting in 2010. The consolidation of these posions has been discussed for years. This is long overdue. When I turned in my signatures to the BOS and was thanked for my work on the matter I left thinking that I might be appointed to serve on this committee. I was very surprised along with the former Superintendant of school, a few School Committee members and many town residents when they quickly appointed the committee prior to the Special TM in which my article was being voted on. I went to a few of the meetings in the beginning and nobody really knew anything about the issue. I would have been a benefit to the committee.
David Chase February 03, 2012 at 05:26 PM
John, risky how? There's the standard problem where each and every piece of land has a designated use and designated owner (for instance, "park"), but beyond that, what? Is this an issue of kids mixing with the disreputable sort that visits the town library? Or would there be IT/network problems, where the school blocks Facebook, but the libraries do not? (And no, I'm not surprised, I've been following these discussions for years, but as long as it is state policy that so much of this stuff is funded by property taxes, we're going to be tight for money.) By-the-way, in these proposed renovations, are we also taking care to raise the foundation a little higher above the flood plain? We came close to flooding a few years back, AND our most recent 50-year rainfall was accompanied by a "200-year flood" (i.e., the models do not accurately reflect the drainage), AND there are uncertain predictions about sea level rise over the next 50-100 years. The high school (and the library) are somewhat more vulnerable to this than most town buildings.
John Bowe February 03, 2012 at 06:44 PM
David, I was thinking more risk from a bad process, largely because it would be a huge unknown to all. It would cover town depts, unions (mulitple lib and school), interacting with state Dept of Ed, questions of BHS accreditation, state or Minuteman library restrictions, etc. We could waste time and money, miss opportunities, point fingers, and give bad service to both types of customers for the period it takes to get the model right. If someone has done this successfully, that could model and process be followed. Since Minuteman collaboration seems to work so well, how about considering all Minuteman members just giving up control, and just paying into a regionalized library system (like you would into a regional school system). Yes, small-town-centric contol is so quaint, parochial, and 19th century New England. That model (regional, county-wide libraries) exists successfully in many states. Sorry, off-topic; this article is about BHS.
John Bowe February 03, 2012 at 06:53 PM
David - no, no consideration that I know of about raising the foundation. Of course you're talking much more money there. Will the loss of the open space at the Uplands (ie, downstream) hurt that situation even more?
David Chase February 03, 2012 at 08:15 PM
John, I am not sure how much the Uplands work would affect it. I'm much more worried that it's already been demonstrated that our flood models are somehow out of whack -- given what has already happened, do you believe the mapped flood plains? The second issue has to do with (this will surely stir the pot) climate change predictions. Sea level is supposed to come up, and the official (IPCC) predictions explicitly do not consider ice caps, and have also fallen short in their predictions of Arctic ice cap shrinkage (which does not directly affect sea level, but it's in the same general neck of the woods). The papers that do consider ice caps note that the melt rate is increasing, and that there's paleoclimate evidence of rates as high as 5cm/year. So if there's a not-too-expensive way to elevate the new wing by a foot or three, maybe we should look into it, just in case.

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