By Aaron Keebaugh
The city hall council chamber was filled to overflowing capacity Monday afternoon as school committee members, residents, and teachers gathered for an informational meeting with the city council about the status of the new McKinley School.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) approved the feasibility study that proposes the construction of the new school on the current Hill Park site. The project is now in the schematic design phase.
The school committee voted in late August to present Hill Park as the best site and most cost-effective solution (about $10 million dollars after an MSBA reimbursable rate of 80%) for the new school. The proposed building will accommodate nearly 700 students.
The vote, though, was not without its controversies. The Hill family, relatives of World War 2 veteran Sergeant Joseph J. “Hoodsie” Hill, for whom the park is named, fought hard to preserve the park. Mayor Dan Rizzo and the school committee came to a compromise with the Hills, and, due to a School Committee vote, the proposed school, when completed, will be named for Sergeant Hill.
Monday night’s meeting was purely informational. “We wanted to take time to discuss plans for the new school,” Mayor Rizzo said to those in attendance. “Overall, things are running extremely smoothly.”
School Superintendent Dr. Paul Dakin said the school fulfills a promise made back in 1999, when initial plans for the new school began in earnest. “[The existing] McKinley, at 109 years old, needs to be replaced… Thirteen years is a long wait, but that project has come true,” Dakin said.
David Billings of Collaborative Partners said that the schematic design plan, which will include a substantial budget plan, will be presented to the MSBA on January 30 and the complete design is projected for completion by next September. If all goes as planned, construction on the new building will take about a year and a half and will be completed by 2015, Billings concluded.
Scott Wooden, architect from Drummey Rosane Anderson, walked through the current design plans for the councillors and residents. The current building design—a three-story structure in an oblong L-shape—will have a double height gymnasium and library on the second floor overlooking the outside. The first floor will contain the cafeteria and centralized administrative offices. The remaining areas and third floor will have “typical, efficient, and economical space for classrooms,” Wooden said.
The plans also call for a tot lot directly behind the school on the Fernwood Avenue side, a renovation of Della Russo Stadium to include regulation football field and track, and potentially, the opening and extension of Fernwood Place to accommodate greater access to the interior drop-off lane and space for additional parking. The plan also involves acquisition of at least three properties.
The council will vote, likely in January, to approve the bond authorization to pay for the new school (which runs over $40 million), as well as the relocation of Hill Park, which is required under Federal law.
A number of councillors remain skeptical about total cost for the project. Councillor-at-Large Brian Arrigo said the current estimates do not include the replacement of Hill Park, the renovations to the existing McKinley School, and property acquisition. Due to potential future budget cuts to the state government, he wonders if the city will be able to afford the project. Councillors Arthur Guinasso and Robert Haas also expressed concerns about the cost.
Billings answered by saying that those items are already reflected in the estimates.
“It’s a moving target right now,” Rizzo said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have now. This is a capital project, and we’re very fortunate that we have an 80% level of reimbursement.”
Ward 6 Councillor Charles Patch, though he said he supports the project, maintained his previously-stated opposition to build the school on Hill Park. “Some say I oppose it for sentimental reasons, but I’m now worried about your children… You’re losing a place for your kids to play in.”
“We can’t do anything but estimate right now,” answered Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Reardon. “This is the least expensive option. It will give us the best school for our money. . . We knew we had to spend money anyway… The city needs to understand that there is no free lunch,” he said, receiving applause from some in attendance.
Council President Richard Penta said there is state and federal money available for this. “What are we gaining? We will get a new school… that could last another hundred years.”
In a phone call Wednesday, Councillor Arrigo said that he is still skeptical of the costs and hopes the council will receive more specific answers in due time.