New school to include ‘innovation hub,’ could cost town $19M

  • Dexter Park Innovation School in Orange. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Here is what the new Fisher Hill Elementary School would look like with a three-story addition built onto its northern side. CONTRIBUTED Image

  • Fisher Hill Elementary School in Orange. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2019 10:23:32 PM
Modified: 10/18/2019 10:23:18 PM

ORANGE — The town’s next elementary school is planned to center around an “innovation hub,” an area combining the arts and sciences, a media center and library in one space that also includes a deck for outdoor learning.

Thursday, the Orange School Building Committee voted to accept the proposal of Hill International Inc., the company managing the school building project on behalf of the town, and Raymond Design Associates, the architectural firm designing the new school.

Of course, the project will only become a reality if Orange voters approve it at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting. And — although Martin Goulet of Hill International stressed the numbers can, and likely will, change — the estimated cost of the project is $68,481,170.

With the state reimbursing the town an expected 72 percent for the project, Orange would have to borrow $19,154,587, using the currently estimated numbers, to fund the project.

The proposal approved Thursday is to be sent to the Massachusetts School Building Authority next week. This is an initial proposal, and the more specific details — what materials are used, what the length of each window is — will crystalize in the coming months, after which an exact cost and state reimbursement rate will be determined.

The plan is to build a three-story addition onto Fisher Hill Elementary School, while also renovating the current Fisher Hill building; demolish Dexter Park Innovation School; and install new playing fields. The final product will be one school for all of Orange’s elementary-age students, from preschool through sixth grade.

Innovation hub

The main selling point Thursday, which ended in a unanimous approval by the Orange School Building Committee of the plan, was the inclusion of an “innovation hub” in the design for the future school.

This area, to be located on the building’s middle floor, would include art and science classrooms, a media center and library in one space. There is also an deck adjacent to the innovation hub for “outdoor learning.”

According to Principal Christopher Dodge, the innovation hub was intentionally put at the center of the school, so students would frequently walk through it and see what is going on.

“This is going to be the center of our school,” Dodge said. “The way it’s designed right now, it’s really supporting independence.”

Superintendent Tari Thomas praised the area’s open layout, which provides versatility and allows students to experience different disciplines in one large space. The innovation hub would also be where meetings and professional development seminars would take place.

“If you’re building a building for the next 50 to 70 years, you don’t know what learning is going to look like, so you want that flexibility,” Thomas said.

Price

The project is estimated to cost $68,481,170, though the numbers will likely change as the project details become more robust. Goulet said the estimate was made liberally, so that the project wouldn’t end up costing more than expected.

This estimated number — though a “draft” number — represents the project costs, “soup to nuts,” Goulet said, including the engineering “feasibility study” that led to the current proposal.

The $68,481,170, broken down, includes $757,000 for the feasibility study; $118,000 for administrative costs like legal fees; $1,816,000 for the project management and administration; $5.6 million for architecture and design; $55,031,686 for construction; $140,000 for miscellaneous costs like moving, testing and inspections; $1,248,000 for furniture fixtures and equipment; and a $3,770,484 contingency cost.

The project could be funded up to 80 percent by the state, and architects recognized Thursday that they may have created confusion by previously billing the project that way. However, the state is willing to reimburse the town at a rate of up to 80 percent of eligible costs, Dan Bradford of Raymond Design Associates clarified.

The School Building Committee resolved to campaign for the planned school, even though it may seem expensive in a town that just rejected a Proposition 2½ tax override over the summer. But members of the committee said the project is worth it, and would potentially benefit the town economically in the long run by attracting more families.

“Without this school we will not grow Orange,” Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker said. “I keep telling people we might as well roll up the pavement because you’re not going to attract younger families to town without this school.”

Gene Raymond, of Raymond Design Associates, said residents should understand the consequences of a “no” vote on the project.

“(With a ‘no’ vote), you’re pretty much out of the (state’s) program and won’t get back in for another four or five years, then to do this again, then construction for a few years,” he said. “You’re pretty much 10 years out — and you think things are expensive now.”

The school, if built, would take about 16 to 18 months of construction time, with phased construction happening during the school year as well as in the summer. The school would be expected to last at least 50 years.

Background

Orange has been working toward a replacement for Dexter Park — its school for grades three through six, currently — since at least 2006, when Dexter Park was designated a “Category 4” school by Massachusetts School Building Authority, demonstrating the need for replacement or repair.

Only one of nine “Category 4” schools in the state, Dexter Park received the designation due to a plethora of problems including asbestos, opaque windows, a leaking roof and a faulty boiler system.

In 2018, residents voted to approve a feasibility study to find potential solutions to the Dexter Park problem.

Ultimately, it was decided in August the current plan — a three-story addition to Fisher Hill, the town’s school for preschool through second grade — was most feasible. The idea of one school for all elementary school students was something administrators and educators pushed for during the feasibility study.

The plan also includes a renovation of the current Fisher Hill building, while the three-story addition will be built onto its northern side.

Dexter Park is to be demolished to install more playing fields, and, in addition to a new drive to improve traffic flow, the new school includes a separate playground for kindergarten students, special education classrooms dispersed throughout the building and an enlarged cafeteria and gymnasium. The school would also be fully accessible, including sloped paths from classroom areas to outdoor fields.

The new school would also be built with close attention to security, with the main entrance leading not into the lobby, but into administrative areas first, then to locked doors before leading to educational areas. Students, under the current plan, would enter the building in the back, where school buses would do drop-off and pick-up.

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




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