Newman Elementary School Auditorium/ Credit: Needham Observer

Town Meeting voted by consent May 13 to appropriate $344,558 for school auditorium upgrades and improvements. Although this is good news to the many residents who have called for action on the tired, inadequate — and in some cases unsafe — performance spaces, it is just the beginning of actions theater consultancy firm Hewshott indicated in a 2023 feasibility study the town should invest in to improve the auditoriums at Pollard Middle School, Newman Elementary School and Needham High School. Total estimated cost according to the study would be about $3.5 million. 

Immediate safety concerns were addressed as soon as the town was made aware of those needs, but many code upgrades such as repairing rigging and replacing lamps in the stage work lights remain to be done in all three locations. A portion of this funding will go toward these improvements. 

The majority of the appropriated funds will be spent on design plans to convert Newman from an outdated analog system to a digital system to “conform with fundamental technology shifts in the industry,” as written in Article 5 of the Special Town Meeting Warrant.

Although many articles were discussed at length at this year’s Town Meeting, this request passed without any discussion at all, something school Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said is testament to the work and information put out by the School Committee and other proponents in advance of the meeting. 

“I think we put forward a compelling case, I think the FAQ provided the information people needed, the School Committee did a good job talking about it, and I think people get it,” he said. “Town Meeting gets it and is ready to move on.” 

School Committee Chair Liz Lee expressed a similar sentiment. “I was not surprised that Needham has a deep understanding that this has a deep importance to our kids, and I’m grateful to Town Meeting members and our residents for that understanding,” she said.

Lee is optimistic that these steps will begin to move the needle in the direction that reflects the work the theater department wants to do. “I’ve never been in theater, and that’s my gift to the world,” she said. “But I trust in the system because I know they have the people who know the things we need to go forward.” 

Of the three auditoriums, Newman was selected for the redesign because it is currently the most heavily used space by the school groups as well as by the town. Pollard will be considered as part of the larger school building project, though through a separate funding source. 

The plans for Newman include only lighting and sound applications and will look at issues such as converting the audio system to digital, replacing wireless equipment, upgrading video equipment to high-definition widescreen, replacing lamps with LED lighting and replacing rigging where needed. 

Heather Salerno, co-president of Friends of Music, said they were encouraged by Town Meeting’s support for the upgrades. “We have a long way to go to get our performance spaces up to standard and on par with our peer communities, but this is an important step, and we are grateful for the town’s support.”

As the town moves forward on performance space renovations and improvements, the question of who is responsible for the auditoriums’ oversight and maintenance remains. This is a question that will need to be addressed, agreed Gutekanst, saying that they need to assess available resources and where they can be reallocated to meet that need. “We need to work with the town to see what other personnel we can bring on board so that new spaces are managed effectively and efficiently,” he said. 

Lee said her impression from listening to discussion among other town boards is that there is a sense of commitment to creating a maintenance plan across all town buildings. “It doesn’t make much sense to build it and not keep it up,” she said. 

The work was slated to begin over the summer, but Gutekanst said officials recently learned the request for bids from three local rigging and lighting companies went unanswered, which will delay the project. 

The Permanent Public Building Committee, which will oversee the project and use of funds along with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, discussed the performance space work at its most recent meeting. Hank Haff, director of design and construction, said they are exploring other options to move forward, but will “likely have to go out to bid again and define a more flexible schedule.” The design work is still scheduled to start in September. 

 Save as PDF

Click here to go Home