After years of discussion and delays, Mitchell Elementary School and Pollard Middle School finally may be in line for reconstruction and renovation.
According to School Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter, both the School Committee and the Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) agree that the preferred scenario involves renovating the middle school first, and subsequently reconstructing the elementary school.
Despite Mitchell’s age and condition, renovating Pollard first would significantly lower the price tag of the overall project, explained Longo Carter.
The choice to expand Pollard is part of a larger goal to incorporate sixth grade in a separate wing, which is currently housed at the High Rock School.
“You can keep the great parts of that sixth grade experience but get the expanded programming being a 6-8 school,” said Longo Carter.
Upon completion of that phase of the project, High Rock would be readied to become temporary space for Mitchell students as their school is rebuilt.
“That avoids having to build a temporary school while Mitchell is renovated,” said Longo Carter. She pointed out that there is no space on the Mitchell site to build while school remains in session.
The alternative, said Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst, is to build a temporary school at DeFazio Park, roughly where the parking lot and one ball field sit. “But that’s a $40 million plus endeavor,” he said. “Drainage work would have to be done and then it all goes away.” This option would also significantly affect sports activities and the Department of Public Works that sits on the same plot.
“For me as a taxpayer,” Longo Carter said, “that seems ridiculous.”
Longo Carter also explained that starting with the elementary school would foist years of disruption on one cohort of students. “If you did Mitchell first, you’d have a population of kids that had construction during their elementary school experience, and then had construction during their middle school experience,” she said.
Town leaders stress that both Mitchell and Pollard are in dire need of renovation.
“The shell of Mitchell School is OK,” said Gutekanst. “But the systems are being held together with duct tape, spit and a lot of hope.” The 70-year-old elementary school “lacks program areas for a school of that size for special education and English language learners. The cafeteria and gymnasium are essentially just large rooms,” he said.
Both schools struggle with fragile heating and water systems, energy efficiencies, and Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility.
At Pollard, modular classrooms built in 2001 and designed to last a maximum of 15 years are still in use. The media center and the cafeteria are too small, as are the conference spaces and special education areas, said Gutekanst.
Once both projects are completed and Mitchell students return to 187 Brookline St., High Rock may then be repurposed back to its original use as an elementary school. Longo Carter said that a sixth elementary school would ease space issues. If the town decided to do universal pre-k without these projects, she said, “We couldn’t do that here. There’s nowhere to put the kids.”
Current projected costs are upward of $330 million, with completion dates of more than 10 years. Determining how to best fund this expense, however, is still in question.
The town has begun the long and complex process of getting state reimbursement for some of the project cost, but there is no guarantee that this request will be granted. When the town requested funding for the Sunita Williams Elementary School, the state reimbursed only 22%.
Longo Carter pointed out that it might be less costly to move ahead without state funding. “Delaying construction doesn’t make building problems go away, it just makes fixing them more expensive,” she said when presenting the school budget at Town Meeting.
In all likelihood, residents will also shoulder the expense. “There will be a sizable override request,” said Longo Carter. “I don’t think anyone is trying to slip that under the rug.”
Needham resident Bob Baker is a former high school history teacher and curriculum writer.
State funding sought for school improvements
In April, Needham filed Statements of Interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) seeking funding to upgrade the Mitchell Elementary School and Pollard Middle School. MSBA is a quasi-public state authority that provides competitive grants based on the urgency of projects.
The school district is seeking comprehensive renovation or replacement of Mitchell, which is nearly 70 years old. The facility’s core educational spaces are currently 42% below MSBA standards for a school its size, its teaching spaces are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, most of the building’s systems are deficient and its energy performance is poor.
Speaking before the Select Board, Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst cited overcrowding, the desire to avoid having students face construction projects at each step as they rise through town schools, avoiding the use of additional facilities, growing building maintenance costs as the facilities age, as well as the potential need to provide space for universal preschool, as reasons for seeking the upgrades.
In the summer of 2014 and again in 2019, the town invested in modular classrooms at Mitchell to reduce overcrowding, but the additions moved the school only from being 42% undersized to 30% undersized. A more permanent solution is needed.
Over the next several months, MSBA will review Needham’s Statements of Interest. During this process, the organization may seek additional or clarifying information from the town.
If the MSBA board of directors votes to invite the district into the eligibility period, the group will work with the school district to identify potential solutions to the issues identified in the SOIs.
MSBA reimbursements begin at a base rate of 31%, but two additional steps could increase the rate. The first is a review of the district’s income, the value of its properties, and its poverty rate.
Next, MSBA adds up to 18 additional percentage points to the reimbursement rate based on incentive factors such as the district’s adopting a high-efficiency, green-school program, pursuing the renovation or re-use of existing facilities and implementing best practices for routine and capital maintenance.
Needham resident Charles Chieppo is the principal of Chieppo Strategies.