Public forum on elementary school project Wednesday

  • A public forum will be held Wednesday on the Orange school building project. Pictured is a schematic of how the proposed elementary school could look. Courtesy graphic/HILL INTERNATIONAL INC.

  • A public forum will be held Wednesday on the Orange school building project. Pictured is a schematic of how the proposed elementary school could look. Courtesy graphic/HILL INTERNATIONAL INC.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2019 11:01:13 PM
Modified: 11/15/2019 11:00:58 PM

ORANGE — In seven months, residents will vote on whether to build an elementary school for all of Orange’s grade school students.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall, a public forum will be held to give updates on the school design and construction process. According to Hill International Inc., the company managing the project on behalf of the town, cost information for the project will also be discussed in detail.

The public forum will include members from the design team at Raymond Design Associates, and will take place during a joint meeting between the Selectboard, Finance Committee and School Building Committee.

The proposed school would be made by renovating Fisher Hill Elementary School — Orange’s school for preschool through second grade — and constructing a three-story addition onto the building’s north face. Dexter Park Innovation School, for grades three through six, would be demolished, and all of the town’s elementary school students would go to school in the same building.

The proposed school includes three playing fields, with a separate age-specific playing area for preschoolers and kindergartners; segregated parent, bus and van entrances; a new exit drive for emergency access; a deck or “outdoor classroom” area for science classes and other subjects; an outdoor courtyard for gardening, attached to the cafetorium; and special education classrooms dispersed throughout the three-story building.

A main selling point has been the addition of an “innovation hub,” a large, mostly open area on the building’s middle floor including art and science classrooms, a media center and library in one space. The outdoor deck is also adjacent to the innovation hub.

At a recent School Building Committee meeting, Principal Christopher Dodge praised the innovation hub as an area that would be central to the school, where students would frequently walk through and see what’s 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 also praised the idea as a way to have students experience different disciplines in one space, and said the innovation hub was versatile.

“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.

Of course, the new school will not become a reality unless residents approve the project at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting, expected to be in June. Then, the project would take 16 to 18 months to complete using “phased construction” — in other words, some construction would happen during the school year, as well as more construction in the summer.

At the last School Building Committee meeting on Oct. 17, Martin Goulet, project manager from Hill International, stressed that the pricing of the project can, and likely will, fluctuate as specific decisions are made in regard to things like materials.

However, the estimate given at that meeting was that the project would cost roughly $68.4 million, with the state reimbursing Orange for 72 percent of the project’s cost, leaving the town to foot $19.1 million of the bill, likely by borrowing.

Background

The need for a new or majorly renovated elementary school became apparent in 2006 at the latest, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority designated Dexter Park as a “Category 4” school due to boiler and heating problems, asbestos, opaque windows, a leaking roof and other issues. The school is one of nine in the state that is “Category 4,” the worst possible status given by the building authority.

In 2018, residents voted to approve a feasibility study to find potential solutions to the problem. That study, conducted by Hill International and Raymond Design Associates, examined several options, including building a new school next to Ralph C. Mahar Regional School or resurrecting the Butterfield School — Butterfield closed in 2015 to alleviate pressure on the town’s budget, but also led to Dexter Park becoming overcrowded.

That study, at just under $800,000, ultimately produced the three-story-addition idea. The cost of the study is expected to be reimbursed at a rate of 80 percent by Massachusetts School Building Authority​​​​​​.

Before residents vote on the project at Annual Town Meeting, a final schematic will have to be approved by the building authority, at which point an exact cost and reimbursement will be determined.

School officials and town officials alike have touted the new school as necessary, not only because it is best for the children of Orange, but because it could help grow Orange.

“Without this school we will not grow Orange,” Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker said at the October meeting. “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.”

Raymond Design Associates’ Gene Raymond also cautioned that residents should understand the consequences of a “No” vote.

“(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.”

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




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