The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why a Carlisle School building project now?


This perspective view shows the proposed new building and plaza as they would look after the removal of the Spalding Building.

On April 5 Carlisle voters will be asked to approve construction funding for the $20 million Carlisle School Building Project. Of this, $12.3 million will be borne by Carlisle taxpayers and up to $7 million reimbursed through a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. With student population on a slow downward trend, the economy uncertain, and a high school project on the horizon, some in town are asking, “Why does Carlisle need a school building project just now?”

A review of recent history shows the (perhaps awkward) timing is driven by a need to address the deficiencies of an aging campus while aiming at the moving target of MSBA approval. The Carlisle School was among the earliest projects to get the go-ahead from MSBA after a five-year moratorium. The priority given the project by the state funding agency has provided the town with an opportunity and a deadline; if not approved at Town Meeting, the offer may be rescinded.


A 2006 facilities audit by the state assigned the 50-year-old Spalding Building the lowest rating possible, a “4,” indicating “candidate for replacement.” By the time of the report, roof leaks, water damage through the foundation, moisture in the interior walls, mold and termites were long-standing problems requiring yearly maintenance. The state also cited the school for overcrowding and non-compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

Spalding is made of a steel skeleton with wood framing and has no sprinkler system. Asbestos tiles lie beneath the carpeting. The electrical system is at capacity. The building is energy-inefficient, currently costing $60,000 in utility costs per year. Maintenance costs add another $80,000 per year, according to Facilities Manager David Flannery, who estimates these costs could be reduced by $40,000 in a new building.

In the spring of 2006, HMFH Architects submitted a Master Plan with several recommendations, including replacing the 16,000-square-foot Spalding with a 35,000-square-foot building. The architects had concluded that Spalding’s design flaws and condition made it beyond renovation, and that space was required for the arts, languages, special education and other programs that had grown over the years. A valued multi-purpose room, which had also provided space for community events, had been lost in 1988 to the need for new classrooms, and it was hoped this could be replaced.

The HMFH recommendation would bring the school up to state standards. A decision to dedicate the new building to grades pre-K through 2 offered the possibility of a protected environment for the youngest students by keeping early education classrooms and support services close together. Areas vacated in other buildings would be refurbished to provide the facilities needed for other programs.

The MSBA had held a five-year moratorium on school building grants, but in 2007 it began accepting new applications. Carlisle was one of over 100 communities to submit a Statement of Intent (SOI). In November 2007 the town was approved for state funding of the design phase of the project. In April 2008, MSBA invited Carlisle to move into the schematic planning stage and $25,000 was approved at Town Meeting to hire an operations project manager.

At Town Meeting in May, 2009, the School Building Committee (SBC) received approval to expend $450,000 to provide engineering for a schematic design with up to 40% to be reimbursed by the state. Recently, Carlisle received word from MSBA that it has approved funding for the project and the town has 120 days to vote whether or not to accept the offer.

MSBA approved $17.5 million out of the $20 million in total costs for this design, resulting in a grant offer of roughly $7 million. The $2.5 million in excluded costs include $623,000 for gross square footage not approved (administrative offices and new second grade classrooms). In addition, the estimated construction cost per-square-foot is higher than the MSBA guideline. The reason given for this is that the project involves siting a new building near other structures as well as renovations, both of which are typically more expensive than construction on a new site.

Enrollment trending down

The school’s student population has dropped roughly 150 since it’s peak about a decade ago and is expected to drop another 30 students next year (see Table 1.) Forecasts predict the enrollment will continue to decline for several years before rising again. The proposed building project is based on an expected future enrollment of 700 students.

New building addresses many issues

At a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum in March, 2009, Superintendent Marie Doyle said that space needs have been dictated by significant changes in education since the school was built. Federal legislation requiring an appropriate education for children with disabilities has driven a need for smaller learning areas where occupational and speech and language therapy can be pursued. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act has challenged the school to provide specialized services in math and literacy, which require small-classroom space.

She noted that educational needs are changing in the 21st Century. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects need to be emphasized, and engineering is now part of the Massachusetts frameworks. Bilingualism and familiarity with other cultures are also considered more important. So although the school population is forecast to decline in the near term, the school seeks to change to effectively prepare students for a technical and global workplace.

Design details

Under the plan being put forward by the SBC, the new building would include 13 classrooms, two special education rooms, tutorial space for speech and literacy, and two principal’s offices. Vacated pre-K space would be renovated to provide an engineering area. Science labs would also be renovated. A multi-purpose room for choral and community activities would be located in the Robbins Building, and the area where the school nurse resides would be changed to house the superintendent and business offices. If the superintendent’s office is not needed that area will become a conference room. The school nurse’s office would move to Wilkins, which is more central.

Repairs to existing buildings will also be part of the project. These include roof replacements for Corey, Robbins, and Wilkins, as well as HVAC repairs and replacement. Some planned capital investments, including lockers, cabling upgrades for computer networks and servers are being rolled into the project, where they will be eligible for MSBA funding.

At the forum in 2009, Town Treasurer Larry Barton summarized the financial case for the project. Roof, HVAC, and other repairs for the Corey, Robbins, and Wilkins Buildings will cost $4.5 million, and these repairs would be required whether or not the rest of the project moves ahead. By rolling these into the MSBA-approved school building project, the town receives up to 40% reimbursement of costs.

Why not renovate?

To renovate rather than replace Spalding would require $6 million, but this would be ineligible for the approved funding offer from MSBA. All told, a renovation would cost the town $10.5 million without addressing many of the deficiencies identified by the state or doing anything to enhance the educational environment.

For $2 million more, Storrs says, the proposed Spalding-replacement project brings many advantages. “We would have a brand new, energy-efficient facility focused on pre-K to 2. We would address the need for small learning spaces. We would have the Corey multi-purpose music room that would also be available for community use. We would have space for engineering, allowing the curriculum to come up to the 2006 state framework.”

“We have the state funding,” says Storrs. “If we don’t act, it would be a while,” before the state would consider a new application. He notes that bidding and financing conditions are currently favorable, and adds, “Long term, it’s a better use of town funds to address this now rather than patch Spalding only to replace it later.”

Note: Data from 1994 to present from Massachusetts Dept. of Ed.

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