Discussions are expected to begin soon on whether to renovate or rebuild Gates Intermediate School, after voters at Scituate's special Town Meeting on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved funding to study the school system's needs.
Approval of the $750,000 study was followed Wednesday by the Massachusetts School Building Authority's vote to invite Scituate into the first phase of a process leading to state money the middle school project.
“We’re looking to partner with MSBA, that is funded through Massachusetts sales tax we all pay....if we get accepted into their program, we will get reimbursed between 40 to 44 percent of the cost it takes to build a school,” said Selectman Tony Vegnani, who presented the warrant article Tuesday.
While the study will look at all the options -- including renovation -- for dealing with problems at the almost century-old building, selectmen already have an outcome in mind.
According to Vegnani, officials hope to move Town Hall into a renovated Gates building and construct a joint police and fire public-safety facility in North Scituate. A new school would subsequently be built at the current location of Town Hall and the police station.
“The board recently appointed a steering committee that will help communicate [our] vision to the community and take feedback from public in regards to the plan,” Vegnani said.
Approximately $375,000 of borrowing approved at Town Meeting in April will be used to evaluate and implement the plan for a public safety facility and Gates renovation.
That money is separate from the $750,000 approved Tuesday night. which will look at all the town’s schools, developing an educational plan and determining what building needs are necessary in the future.
According to the town clerk, approximately 650 people came to the Tuesday's meeting, with voices raised for and against the funding.
“The way in which Gates is operating today is rising operational costs up almost four times greater than any school in town,” said Maura Curran with the advisory committee. “This is our opportunity to be proactive and demonstrate to the MSBA that we as a town are behind this project.”
Superintendent John McCarthy stressed that several area towns were taking advantage of the MSBA program, with schools in Duxbury, Hanover, Marshfield, Plymouth, and Whitman/Hanson building new schools with the MSBA’s help.
Several residents also weighed in on issues ranging from handicap accessibility to windows, heating, and fire safety.
“Even students at Gates said the issue is the building, and not anything else. In a 2008 [survey], 67 percent said the biggest deterrent to their learning was the building,” said Jen Morrison, a member of the Friends of Scituate's Future group.
Nate Rand, who lives on Country Way, said that surrounding towns were replacing schools half as old as Gates, and although issues weren’t dire now, they could easily become so.
“We’ll face challenges to accomplish our educational goals…but do we have a desire to improve? Are we content where we are? Do we risk falling behind? If we fail to improve or at the very least keep pace, what does it mean for our town?” he said.
Some others, however, were wary about the overall cost of the project, especially with the state of the economy.
"If the town has spare cash, I'd like to see it come back to me. I’d like to see an underride for once. It may sound selfish, but we need to take a look at our pocketbooks,“ said Marjorie Ohrenberger, a Seamore Road resident.
“We need to maintain the buildings we already have,” agreed another resident, who mentioned that Scituate’s MCAS scores were already admirable.
Regardless of concerns, the motion passed easily on a voice vote, with a loud “yes” reverberating through the room.
In an announcement, the MSBA said its vote on Wednesday brings Scituate into the agency's "eligibility period," which aims to demonstrate the school district's commitment to the process and identify needs for planning and budgeting.
Scituate now has 270 days to complete preliminary requirements, which would lead to further steps if approved by the MSBA board.
Whatever plan is chosen, Scituate officials ultimately would have to come back to the town for the money to carry out a renovation or new construction.