Can Mass. Afford to Repair Worcester’s Crumbling Schools?
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
Burncoat High, Doherty Memorial, and South High all make the list for needed work because of serious physical deficiencies. But the process for receiving state support for capital improvements is highly competitive and it could be years before local officials can move forward.
Burncoat and Doherty both date to the 1960s, while South High features a disadvantageous “open classroom” design from the 1970s that makes learning difficult.
Action dependent on state grant process
“It's up to them,” says WPS Chief Financial and Operations Officer Brian Allen, referring to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the quasi-independent government agency that since 2004 awards state revenues to municipalities for school construction projects. Working through that competitive grant process, Worcester stands to recoup about 80 percent of associated project costs. “We certainly hope (our) schools will be invited into the process,” Allen said.
Reflecting the competitiveness, nearly two-thirds of last year's proposals (known as Statements of Interest, or SOIs) received by the MSBA were re-submissions from prior years.
“It's a multi-year process,” said school committee member Jack Foley, the chair of the subcommittee on finance and operations. “(The SOI) says, 'Here are the prioritized targets for the upcoming year.'”
The WPS has until mid-April to submit its major SOIs. The city council will review recommendations from school officials at their scheduled meeting this week.
Nelson Place plans in process
At Nelson Place Elementary School, a building originally opened in 1927 now slated to be replaced, “that's a five-year turnaround window,” Allen said. After the MSBA approved major repairs/replacement in 2012, plans underway for a new building should see the facility open September 2017.
Nelson Place was sent to the MSBA for consideration as a major project for four years before being allowed ahead.
This spring the WPS will also begin work on a master building plan that incorporates facility needs, current and future educational needs, and enrollment trends.
With a number of buildings in need of attention, school committee member Tracy Novick said she anticipated the district in a rebuild/replacement cycle for some time. “This is where the master plan comes in,” Novick said. “MSBA has advised us that we need one, and it is simply good policy to examine all of our schools for their major needs to have a clear idea of what we are doing and when.”
The city's annual capital investment program typically provides $3 million for smaller projects, like those renovations included through the MSBA's accelerated repair program. Those projects cover items like windows, roofs, and boilers. Because of current reimbursement rates, “that (local investment) really leverages about $15 million of total projects,” Allen said.
The district is currently looking toward window replacement at four buildings.
The three high schools have physical issues with HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), accessibility, and efficiency. “The problems at South High are legendary,” Foley said.
South High, with a little under 1,300 students in grades 9 through 12, was constructed in 1978 and is a 246,000-square-foot facility on a 41-acre parcel shared with Sullivan Middle School. The school's windows are original, and, although replaced in 2004, the roof leaks.
“While we are submitting the three comprehensive high schools, South was and remains the number one priority for the Worcester Public Schools,” Novick said.
South High was built with an “open classroom design,” with multiple classes sharing the same space and organized in “pods” by content area. “This open-classroom design concept has been the largest barrier for student success at the school,” according to last year's SOI.
“The idea around open classroom was to increase team teaching opportunities and collaboration among teachers. The open classroom does achieve these goals,” that report states. “However, the background noise resulting from many teachers instructing in the same area is a challenge for many staff and students.”
Wall dividers, bookcases, and blackboards were installed to delineate classroom space for now, but floor-to-ceiling dividers aren't an option because of the building's heating system, which already creates uneven temperature fluctuations between 40 and 80 degrees between rooms.
“There are major structural and design flaws that are problematic” at South High, Foley said.
Doherty and Burncoat built in 1960s
Meanwhile, Doherty and Burncoat were built during the days of “cheap heat.” With many corridors and windows, both buildings are “very difficult to heat” according to Foley.
Doherty Memorial was built in 1966 and includes approximately 168,000 square feet for around 1,350 students. The school's windows are original while the roof was replaced in 1995. Core educational spaces at Doherty have remained largely unchanged since the building opened, and the building isn't handicapped accessible in accordance to state and federal law.
During a cold snap earlier last month, HVAC failures caused frigid temperatures at the start of school at Dougherty.
The 144,000-square-foot Burncoat High building was constructed in 1964 and has a current enrollment of about 1,100 students. Like Doherty and South High, Burncoat has been placed on warning status by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges for facilities deficiencies, and last year's SOI reports “aging infrastructure fails to support the educational program and the mission” of Burncoat.
Foley said all three were ready for either major repair or replacement.
“They're very high priority for us,” agreed school committee member Brian O'Connell. “I expect we will address them as rapidly as possible.”
“The buildings have clearly served us well ... but they are showing the extent of their age.” Acknowledging the process may not get underway this year, O'Connell said school officials were working now so they wouldn't find themselves in a more dire future situation. With local support from the school committee and city council, “our focus really shifts to Beacon Hill” and how much funding is included for school repairs in the forthcoming state budget.
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