Schools of Thought: Renovate the High School or Build Something New?

Thursday, August 18, 2011
By Cary Shuman

Shown at the Winthrop Town Council meeting Tuesday are David Dockendorf, co-chair of the School Building Committee, Mary Ann Williams of Skanska USA Building, Boston, Mary Lou Osborne, chair of the Winthrop School Committee, Laura Wernick, senior principal of HMFH Architects, and John Macero, superintendent of Winthrop schools and co-chair of the School Building Committee.

The Winthrop Town Council held a public hearing with the School Building Committee Tuesday night as the town begins the process of deciding whether to renovate the high school or build a brand new middle/high school complex.

Superintendent of School John Macero, co-chair of the committee, project executive Mary Ann Williams of Skanska USA Building, and Laura Wernick of HMFH architects who is doing the preliminary analysis, were part of the formal presentation at the meeting.

Macero talked about the mission of the committee while situated in front of a large graph detailing the Winthrop project’s time-line (2007-present) and outlining the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) process.

“Our mission as a committee is to make sure that we evaluate the money that been appropriated for us and to take a look at it and that we spend it wisely,” said Macero.

The superintendent listed a few options that could be available to the town: renovate the high school building; build an addition to the high school; build a new high school; or build a new middle/high school complex.

Macero, who favors a new middle/high school complex, also announced the results of a survey that drew 306 respondents. Residents (236 to 76) overwhelmingly supported allowing the School Building Committee to expand the study to include an exploration of building “a single new middle/high school facility.”

Council President Jeffrey Turco later asked astutely if the response to the survey was considered large enough to gauge the consensus of the community on the issue of building a new complex. Williams termed the response “very good” considering that the time people had to submit their survey was short and the survey was conducted in mid-summer when many people are on vacation.

Macero judged the favorable response to the key question (middle/high school complex) “as a positive move,” also citing that roughly half the respondents do not have children in the school system, meaning that there is support in the community for a new school complex from residents who do not have children attending Winthrop schools.

Macero said the committee will be meeting twice a month through next August and that there are openings for people wishing to join the committee.

Williams, project manager at this early stage in the process, noted that the town was approved for a 54 percent reimbursement from the state for its high school renovation project after it was first talked about in 2007 – but that figure could grow depending on how environmentally advantageous [“green”] a repair/new construction project is and other factors including whether Winthrop uses a model school [taking a previously built new school and utilizing the same design for the new Winthrop school] in its own design and construction.

Williams said that a question “that always comes up [in the process] is, ‘what is wrong with our middle school and high school?”

She then answered her own question, saying, “One thing that we can say at a higher level is that they [the Winthrop middle and high schools] have exceeded their useful life. The buildings are older buildings. They waste energy. They cost the town a lot of money to maintain and to operate. They currently don’t meet safety codes to protect our children. They don’t meet state and federal regulations and they no longer support the academic requirements that are being offered to our students. So that doesn’t allowed us to provide competitive advantage to all of our children.”

The next meeting of the School Building Committee is Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Arthur T. Cumming School.

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