Orange elementary school project narrowed to two options

  • Orange’s Dexter Park Innovation School, one of its two elementary schools. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2019 11:27:36 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 11:27:22 PM

ORANGE — Despite support from educators, Orange will not be getting a new elementary school next to Ralph C. Mahar Regional School.

That option was popular because it would have all of Orange’s public school students educated on one campus, from the day they start preschool through graduating high school.

However, the idea was eliminated Thursday night at a meeting of the Orange School Building Committee, as committee members and architects narrowed the options for the Dexter Park Innovation School project down to two final schemes.

The Dexter Park project is the town’s effort to replace Dexter Park Innovation School, Orange’s elementary school for students in the third through sixth grades — younger students, starting in preschool, go to the adjacent Fisher Hill Elementary School.

Final options

The final two options for the project both keep Orange’s elementary school students at the current Dexter Park/Fisher Hill campus. However, rather than dividing the students by age and sending them to adjacent schools, both options envision one, preschool-through-sixth-grade school building.

The options are denoted as Option K1 and Option N1 by Raymond Design Associates, the architectural firm working the project, and Hill International Inc., the company managing the project on behalf of the town. The schematics for Option K1 and Option N1, as well as eliminated options, are viewable through a link on the project’s Facebook page, “Dexter Park Improvements.”

Option K1 is a major addition to, and renovation of, the current Fisher Hill building, with the plan being to demolish Dexter Park to put in playing fields. Option K1 would add a three-story wing on the northern side of the building, which would be the school’s new front entrance, with new drives to be built to allow parents to drop students off in the front of the school, while buses pull around back to drop students off.

“A definite pro is I think you will have safer movement of people and vehicles,” said School Committee member Dianne Salcedo.

According to Dan Bradford, project architect for RDA, Option K1, if ultimately selected and approved, would be built in phases, with major construction happening during the summer, but also some during the school year.

Costs are largely unknown at this point, Hill International’s Martin Goulet said, and Option K1 would not only be an addition, but a renovation to the current building areas. In theory, Goulet said, this could save money in the future, because the project is being reimbursed at a rate of 80 percent by the state and, by including renovations in the project, future taxpayers would not have to bear the entire cost of renovations on an aging building.

“Part of this plan involves some repairs here at Fisher Hill that will alleviate future costs to the town,” Goulet said, mentioning lighting, carpeting and roofing as potential repairs or replacements. “It takes some future debt away from the taxpayers.”

Option N1, while it also envisions a preschool-through-sixth-grade school at the current Dexter Park/Fisher Hill campus, is not an addition and renovation, but a new school entirely.

Option N1 would demolish Dexter Park’s current building, replacing that spot with playing fields, and a new building would be erected in front of — east of — where Dexter Park is now. The building would still be oriented north-south like the current Dexter Park, but would be much larger to accommodate the extra students.

Fisher Hill would not be demolished under Option N1, but decommissioned. Officials like Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker and Selectboard Chairman Ryan Mailloux said the Fisher Hill building should be used for some other purpose, perhaps as the Town Hall or library, rather than just be abandoned like the old Butterfield School.

“It would solve a lot,” Voelker said, adding that the town is currently a “huge open campus” with departments and key buildings inconveniently spread out. “You could potentially put your library here (Fisher Hill), your Senior Center in here.”

Both of the final options take into account the idea of outdoor learning, with a new lab to be built with outdoor access — this was a feature residents expressed interest in at previous public outreach sessions — as well as community access to features like the gymnasium.

Eliminations

Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, which serves middle school and high school students from Orange, Petersham, New Salem and Wendell, was considered as a site for a new preschool-through-sixth-grade elementary school. However, several complexities led to its elimination.

“It’s like the Cadillac in the parking lot, but we can really only get the Chevy,” Mailloux said. “Anything that delays the project is just super risky.”

First, the “major drawback,” Bradford said, is that the project could be stalled for several years if Mahar was chosen. Because Orange elementary schools are in a separate school district than the regional Mahar district, the state would have to pass special legislation to allow land at Mahar to be used for an essentially Orange-only school.

The project would also have to be allowed by all four Mahar towns, with a “no” vote at any of the four towns’ Annual Town Meetings killing the project.

Finally, the Federal Aviation Administration could shut the project down if the new school building was built too close to the adjacent Orange Municipal Airport — the school would be underneath a flightpath. Even if the school were not too close, legally, to the airport, the FAA still has the power to declare the school a “nuisance” and stop the project.

With the multiple gambles the town would have to take by choosing the Mahar option, it was unanimously voted down Thursday. Other options eliminated include resurrecting the Butterfield School, simply repairing the current Dexter Park building and all grade-three-to-six school options.

Background

Built in 1951, Dexter Park was designated as a “Category 4” school by the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2006. Category 4 is the worst rating from the MSBA, and shows a need for substantial repairs or replacement. Dexter Park is one of nine schools in the state with Category 4 status, and was given the designation after boiler and heating problems, a leaking roof, asbestos and opaque windows.

Last year, voters approved funds for a “feasibility study” to study the Dexter Park problem, and yield options for repair or replacement. The state is reimbursing the town for 79.5 percent of the $875,000 study.

On July 31, the final two options chosen Thursday will be presented in more detail to the Selectboard and Finance Committee at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Hall.

The next day, Aug. 1, the single, final option will be chosen at another School Building Committee meeting.

Once the final option is chosen, it will be presented to MSBA, at which point there will be a clearer picture of the project’s cost, and the state can evaluate and determine funding — Hill International expects 80 percent of the project to be state-funded.

Finally, a finished schematic design and proposal are to be finished early next year, and residents should expect to vote on the project at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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