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On his way out, Malden mayor leaves an investment in the future

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2011
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By George Holland’s account, the plan was untested.

It was January 1996 when Holland, then the Malden school superintendent, met with the city’s new mayor, Richard C. Howard. Malden’s schools, Holland and others said, were in rough shape.

Some elementary school facilities were more than 100 years old. The district had recently closed two junior high schools, scattering grades among remaining buildings.

The high school, last refurbished in the 1970s, had long been marred by poor lighting, aging heating and cooling systems, and dingy classrooms.

“When Richard came into office, we sort of took a step back’’ to take stock, said Holland, who retired in 2000 after leading the district for 12 years. “Basically, he wanted to do a big project.’’

Now nearly 16 years later, the $200 million effort to remake the school district was capped when Howard and a bevy of local and state officials rededicated Malden High School on Dec. 9.

The $77 million high school renovation brings to a close one of the largest school rebuilding efforts in the state, completed under Howard’s watch, with the state covering 90 percent of the costs.

“I don’t know of any other community that got as much money out of us,’’ joked Jack McCarthy, interim executive director of the Massachusetts State Building Authority, during the ceremony.

Other districts have in fact received more, an authority spokesman said, but Malden still ranks in the top tier of investments the agency has made.

While visibly unchanged from its exterior, Malden High School is much evolved inside. Every classroom hosts a digital projection system and an interactive whiteboard that double as a DVD player and television; new windows and heating and air conditioning systems to keep learning comfortable in all seasons; better accessibility at the main entrance for handicapped people; fresh paint, flooring, and ceilings; and 14 new science labs.

“The science labs were the greatest single area of reconstruction,’’ said James Norton of URS Corp., which oversaw the construction. “It was the only area within the school where interior walls were taken down and the classrooms were totally reformatted.’’

The gymnasium received new lighting, paint, seating, and special rubber flooring that looks like parquet, but cushions athletes in a fall. Band and choir rooms were freshened, and new public address and clock systems were put in place.

Jenkins Auditorium, a state-of-the-art venue when it opened in 1939, has been restored to its Art Deco glory, and retrofitted with a new stage, lighting, and audio capability.

Painted in hues of vibrant peach, purple, and blue, the space radiates with light from a massive faux skylight.

“From a kid standpoint, they now go into bathrooms where the faucets work and the toilets work and the stall doors close,’’ said Dana Brown, Malden High School principal, who has memories of the rickety days as a 1977 graduate. “From a real practical standpoint, it’s a much better educational setting.’’

Technology upgrades also abound, said Norton. High-speed Internet access is piped in through two dedicated lines, and two of the high school’s three buildings host wireless access; the third will receive wireless connectivity later this school year, Norton said.

With the technology, Brown said teachers are encouraging students to bring in and use digital devices such as laptops and iPads, which can now more seamlessly interact with the digital equipment in the classrooms.

Most noticeable, however, is a different atmosphere.

“I think the whole culture and climate of the school had changed leading up to the renovation,’’ Brown said. “It’s bright; it’s cheery.’’

Howard made schools his top priority during his first term and had to push hard for the new facilities, winning court battles and navigating the legislative system in the process, he said. The result was at times madcap: In one five-year span from 1999 to 2003, he oversaw the construction of six school buildings, or about one per year.

“There were all kinds of moving pieces in the early stages that had to be kind of lined up and pushed forward,’’ Howard said.

The high school was the final phase in the district’s reconstruction plan, which now that it is complete, he said, gives him a sense of closure as he leaves office to become Winchester’s town manager.

“It’s a tremendous personal pleasure for me to be at this before the end of my service,’’ Howard said at the high school rededication.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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$69 million Approximate amount received from Mass. School Building Authority for $77 million project 320,000 Work hours for the renovation Five football fields Area new flooring covers (288,000 square feet)
SOURCE: URS Corp.