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Study on elementary school construction stirs controversy in Needham

Posted by Evan Allen  July 11, 2012 11:58 AM

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A Tuesday night School Committee meeting drew sign-toting residents concerned about the possibility of building a school on Cricket Field

A study on the feasibility of renovating or replacing two aging elementary schools in Needham has raised the ire of residents and pitted town boards against each other over concerns that open space in Needham will be swallowed up by construction.

The so-called "prefeasibility study,'' released in final draft form on July 6, lays out three possibilities, but one, which involves building a new Hillside School at Cricket Field, has sparked fierce debate in town. It has inspired the creation of a “Save Cricket Field” movement complete with custom-made t-shirts, and another movement of Hillside parents who want all options considered.

“We moved to the Cricket Field area because we have this beautiful green space in our district,” said Sue Owen at a Board of Selectmen meeting attended by about 75 people on Tuesday night. “If we lose that, we feel like it would change our neighborhood.”

The Park and Recreation Commission, which controls Cricket Field, has formally requested that the School Committee take the Cricket Field option out of consideration. At a School Committee meeting on Tuesday, Committee members decided not to vote on the request, saying they did not want to limit their thinking or appear to be endorsing any one option.

“This report is literally hot off the presses,” said Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst. “I think it would be premature to take any options off.”

In an interview, School Committee chair Heidi Black described the findings of the prefeasibility study as “very, very preliminary,” and said that none is preferred. At Tuesday's School Committee and Board of Selectmen meetings, she tried to reassure worried residents that the study is a starting point, not a definitive document.

The first option laid out in the study is to renovate both schools at their present locations. School Committee members have said that this is the option they prefer, but there are several major problems with the Hillside site.

According to the study, Hillside is a 24.6-acre parcel of land, but wetlands shrink the usable acreage to just under six. The area is prone to flooding. And there are questions about whether the land is contaminated by chemicals that seeped into the soil in the 1980s. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is currently monitoring the site, according to the study.

The possible contamination likely wouldn’t prevent construction, but would make it more costly, according to the study.

The second option is to build a new 6th grade school on DeFazio Field, renovate Mitchell, and redistrict surrounding schools.

And the idea that has raised hackles around town: build Hillside at Cricket and renovate or rebuild Mitchell.

Cost estimates for all three options range from around $75 million to $90 million. The district plans to apply for funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Both the School Committee and Board of Selectmen meetings drew large crowds, with many residents decked out in green and white “Save Cricket” shirts and carrying signs – some in support of kicking the Cricket idea to the curb and others in support of keeping all options open.

“We don’t want to be a Build on Cricket field group where there’s a Save Cricket Field group,” said Hillside parent Seth Bloom in an interview. “It’s just that we seem to need as many options as possible.”

Hillside parents are concerned that if their children’s school can’t be renovated where it stands, that their close-knit school community will be scattered to the winds by major redistricting.

“We love Hillside, it’s an amazing community and it would be a terrible shame to see it divided,” said Joanna Herrera at the selectmen’s meeting. “Our goal here is not to build on Cricket Field, it’s to let the process continue as it should.”

Residents who live near Cricket, however, worry that their open space would be sacrificed when other options have not been fully considered.

“I’m concerned that the School Committee is not taking the broad enough focus on what the alternatives are,” said Howard Furman. “I’m concerned that Cricket is an easy solution. It may save temporary costs. I’m concerned that they’re not looking at the long term of what’s good for the town.”

The School Committee is still a long ways from a final decision.

It hopes to submit a statement of interest to the School Building Authority sometime this fall, when the authority opens up requests, according to Gutekanst. If the district gets the go-ahead from the authority, it would have a 270-day window to secure funding for a feasibility study, which would be a more comprehensive look than the current study at the best way to renovate the schools.

The town would have to secure funding for the building project as well, likely through a debt-exclusion, he said.

In an aggressive conceptual scenario, he said, construction on the first school wouldn’t begin until sometime in 2015. Doors could open sometime in 2017, he said, and then construction on the second school would begin.

Black said that the Committee will not be making any decisions about where and how to construct or renovate the schools until it has done a feasibility study and had “a robust, transparent conversation with the community about the things that are important to us.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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