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Here’s what Orange’s new school could look like

  • Here is what the new Fisher Hill Elementary School would look like with a 3-story addition built onto its northern side. Courtesy image/HILL INTERNATIONAL INC.

  • Courtesy image/HILL INTERNATIONAL INC.

  • Courtesy image/HILL INTERNATIONAL INC.

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

Staff Writer
Published: 9/6/2019 10:44:52 PM
Modified: 9/6/2019 10:44:36 PM

ORANGE — A school built big enough to educate all of Orange’s students — from preschool through sixth grade — is still a ways away from reality, but the design phase is underway.

Much of 2019 has been spent talking about solutions to the structural problems at Dexter Park Innovation School, currently Orange’s elementary school for students in third through sixth grade.

With the School Building Committee, architects at Raymond Design Associates (RDA) and Hill International Inc. — the company managing the project on behalf of the town — having settled on a solution Aug. 1, schematics have been released detailing the design status of a future school.

The plan is to educate all elementary school students at Fisher Hill Elementary School, currently for students in preschool through second grade and adjacent to Dexter Park. Dexter Park will then be demolished.

Necessary to fit the extra students, a three-story addition will be built onto the northern side of the existing Fisher Hill building, where there are only fields now. The new wing will also become the school’s main entrance, with a new roadway leading up to the front of the school.

The three-story addition is the most prominent feature of the released images of a potential school, with large windows to let in natural light — something school officials and educators have asked for throughout discussions this year.

Also in the new three-story wing is a media center and offices for administration. Classrooms are dispersed throughout the building, and 14 rooms dedicated to special education are spread out across all three floors.

The project is not simply an addition to the existing Fisher Hill building, and has been billed as an “addition/renovation.” Larger windows are depicted in the released images as being added to the existing parts of the building as well.

Preschoolers and kindergartners will be educated in the same area they are now, with a new, small playground for those students.

The diagrams released are only preliminary, and “much work is to come,” according to a statement from Hill International on the project’s Facebook page.

“We will continue to tweak the design so that it both represents the best educational plan and is also affordable,” the post reads.

Also, the building project will not be a reality unless it is ultimately accepted and, in part, funded by residents.

The need for a replacement of the 1951-built Dexter Park has been apparent since at least 2006, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority designated it a “Category 4” school, the worst possible ranking from the agency, due to boiler and heating problems, a leaking roof, asbestos and opaque windows.

With Dexter Park being only one of nine “Category 4” schools in the state, Orange voters chose to fund an $875,000 feasibility study in 2018 to examine solutions to Dexter Park. The funds for that study are being reimbursed at a rate of around 80 percent by the state.

Hill International, RDA and the town examined multiple options this year, including a renovation of Dexter Park, adding on to Dexter Park and building a new school entirely, either at the current Dexter Park/Fisher Hill campus or adjacent to Ralph C. Mahar Regional School. Resurrecting the Butterfield School, which was closed in 2015, was also considered — Butterfield was Orange’s third public elementary school at the time, but was closed due to financial problems in town, causing Dexter Park to become overcrowded since.

Ultimately, the option of adding onto Fisher Hill was chosen. Educators and administrators had consistently called for all students to be educated in one building and, by choosing Fisher Hill for an add-on, Dexter Park can be demolished and replaced by playing fields.

“We have a great opportunity to build a great campus,” said School Committee member Alex Schwanz when the Fisher Hill option was chosen. “A school is not just the building itself.”

Now comes the design phase. Specific costs are unknown at this point, but preliminary estimates put the project at around $50.9 million — about 80 percent of which is estimated to be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, according to Hill International’s Martin Goulet.

A collaborative effort between the town’s School Building Committee, Hill International and RDA will determine the specifics, and costs, of the project, and Goulet said he will be a “stick in the mud,” reminding others “everything has a price tag” during that process.

A final design will not be presented to the state until early next year, at which point state funding will be finalized.

Orange voters, who rejected a half-million-dollar Proposition 2½ tax override this summer amid fiscal woes, should expect to vote on the project at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting. If passed, another vote will need to be taken to approve the town’s portion of spending, anticipated to be 20 percent of the total cost.

If approved, build-time estimates are around 24 months from when the construction starts, RDA project architect Dan Bradford said.

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