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Hingham Town Meeting to choose Middle School options

Posted by dinouye  October 16, 2011 12:01 AM

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There's one thing nearly every Hingham residents can agree on: Something needs to be done about the town’s 50-year-old middle school.



The roof has 66 major and 155 minor cracks, spreading like spider webs throughout the support beams. The windows don’t insulate well, the hallways aren’t big enough, and the core spaces can’t hold the school’s ever-expanding population.

However, what to do about the problem is the subject of an intense debate in a community that takes pride in its school system, but is still digesting big expenditures on the schools three years ago.

When residents go to Special Town Meeting on Oct. 24, one major option will be a new $60.9 million middle school — complete with enlarged auditorium, gymnasium,  enough classrooms for the current student population, and a roughly 44 percent reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The school would be built under the state’s Model School Program, which cuts costs by using designs from previously built schools.

Residents, banding together as the HMS Study Group, are proposing an alternative they say would cost only $8 million to $10 million, as it calls for only limited renovations to the existing building — updating the roof, windows, and security system — and adding modular classrooms. Proponents assert this could extend the life of the building by 50 years or more.

Articles at Town Meeting would either authorize borrowing $60.9 million to build a new school, or using a yet to be determined amount of money from the town’s reserve fund to pay for the feasibility study for the alternate proposal.

Up to this point, cost has dominated the discussion.

‘‘It’s a good question: What will the town pay?’’ said Selectman Bruce Rabuffo, who has been openly critical of the project’s price. ‘‘My personal opinion is, let’s keep the focus on that.’’

Despite two engineering exercises bent on reducing the price tag, the overall cost is still above $60 million, in contrast to the $50 million to $57 million School Committee members initially estimated.

Rabuffo hopes that, if passed by Town Meeting, the engineering phase of the project could result in a further reduction in price, potentially to $55 million to $57 million. Yet the town’s $35 million share, after state reimbursement, still may prove too much for some residents to bear.

‘‘A lot of this thinking will be beyond the control of the selectmen or School Committee,’’ Rabuffo said. ‘‘We’re trying to convince townspeople it’s the right time for the right reasons, but [the vote] will come down to people and their personal situations.’’

For Edna English, a member of the HMS Study Group, it’s exactly those personal situations that have her rejecting the idea of a new school.

‘‘We feel at least in this process there should be a recognition that the affordability is terribly important, and the cost of this is enormous,’’ English said. ‘‘The affordability issue is the number one concern ... we know people are underemployed, people who have lost their jobs, and people on fixed income ... those people are badly affected.’’

George Reichenbacher, 73, wholeheartedly agreed. Retired and on a fixed income, he said, ‘‘Taxes are already high. My general feeling is they spend enough money on education.’’

This vote comes about three years after Hingham residents approved $26 million for constructiom of the East Elementary School; $7 million in repairs to the Plymouth River and Foster elementary schools; and $700,000 for modular classrooms at the middle school.

Carlton Alan Chambers, 70, remembers when the first middle school was built. ‘‘There is skepticism,’’ he said, ‘‘to build schools it seems were built yesterday.’’

Now is not the time to be spending excessively, agreed Scott Young, 23, who attended the middle school not too long ago.

The drawings for the new school ‘‘look really impressive, but where is that money going to come from?’’ he asked.

But others, such as Ann Fickenwirth, who has an eighth-grader at the middle school, said the impact of increased taxes wouldn’t be that great.

The project is expected to increase annual property taxes by a maximum of $60.72 per $100,000 of assessed value in fiscal 2015, then decrease gradually over the 20-year life of the loan the town would obtain to fund the project.

‘‘It seems manageable,’’ Fickenwirth said.

‘‘A bigger school is better for the kids. More room — Hingham is growing!’’ agreed Haleigh Spirito, 26. ‘‘Higher taxes would be an issue, but it’s for the better. It’s worth it.’’

For Hingham resident Mike Darst, the investment would be worthwhile, especially as it would attract potential home buyers.

Supporters also said that no matter the extent of renovations, they wouldn’t solve the space problems.

‘‘The rooms, you can’t make them bigger. You can’t fix what’s there,’’ said 72-year-old Chrisanne Gregoire, a 27-year veteran of the Hingham School Committee.

Additionally, ‘‘it’s a fair price,’’ she said. ‘‘The MSBA would not approve it if it wasn’t correct. I have faith in the MSBA and the project.’’

Looming over the debate is the fact that if the warrant article to fund construction of a new school doesn’t receive the required two-thirds approval at Town Meeting, it would be tantamount to going back to square one.

‘‘We’ve invested a lot of ... time and money in working with Hingham to get to this point, so we’d have to start over ...,’’ said Katherine Craven, executive director for the School Building Authority. ‘‘And that, if you think about it, we’ve been at this three or four years.’’

‘‘There has to be an acknowledgement that if people vote ‘no,’ it will undo a lot of hard work,’’ Craven said.

That work has included a change of heart by the state authority, whose first instinct was to renovate Hingham Middle School. Yet after further studying the cost of renovation — an estimated $63.1 million for an entire renovation, or $65.2 million for renovations and an update of the existing science wing — the authority determined that replacing the school would be more cost-effective.

‘‘The analysis was we’d be spending a lot of money on an older building ... for almost the same cost. A new building would be a fresh start and it would be a longer-lasting and more efficient solution for Hingham,’’ Craven said.

Town officials are expecting a good turnout at Town Meeting, and are preparing for shuttle buses to take people to and from the South Shore Baptist Church parking lot. If the article to build a new school receives a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting, it also will have to win a majority vote at the polls.

Details about the Town Meeting warrant can be seen on the Hingham website.

Visit www.boston.com/hingham to vote in an online poll on the middle school.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.

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