Officials plan meeting with building authority to discuss school plans

Oct 3, 2017

Faced with major long-term building projects that could cost tens of millions of dollars, School Committee members are seeking the state’s help in moving forward.

That was the consensus School Committee members and school officials came to at a special working session organized by the committee on October 2 in response to its recently completed facilities master plan. Completed in August, it found overcrowding in all of Dartmouth’s elementary schools except Quinn Elementary School. The master plan arrived at that conclusion by comparing current conditions in each building in the context of modern Massachusetts School Building Authority guidelines.

The master plan identified two possible solutions. Both would close the Cushman School, which the report found was educationally obsolete. One plan would renovate Quinn Elementary and turn it into a centralized early childhood education facility. Redistricting would be necessary, and costs are estimated at between $54-$56 million.

A second option would relocate pre-kindergarten classes across Quinn, DeMello, and Potter. Quinn would be renovated, and DeMello and Potter would need small classroom additions. The cost is estimated at $81-$86 million.

Under each option, the Massachusetts School Building Authority may reimburse a portion of project funding.

When the plan was initially unveiled at the August 28 School Committee meeting, members were left with sticker shock from the price of the options proposed, as well as concerns that Dartmouth Middle School was not identified as a priority. In past meetings, members expressed concerns with the building as a $5.8 million roof replacement project is moving forward. The report recommended a comprehensive renovation at a later date.

“We maintain our buildings really well, but there has not really been a desire address our long-term needs,” said School Buisness Administrator James Kiely said.

At the working session, Symmes Maini and McKee Associates Principal Philip Poinelli noted that if the middle school was identified as a priority, it would be about 15-20 years before being approved because of the way the building authority approves projects.

He listed eight criteria the building authority uses, and noted the middle school would only meet two of those priorities, while the other two options meet three – including the number two priority of eliminating existing overcrowding.

The committee is still unsure about exactly how to proceed. Members agreed that the first open – to only renovate the Quinn School – is not ideal, and spent much of October 2’s working session discussing the option to conduct work on Quinn, Potter, and DeMello.

Poinelli outlined the process that the school building authority follows in deciding to move a project forward. The town would need to submit a letter of interest. Officials would then tour schools selected for potential approval before making their final determination. A one-year study would then be needed to develop more concrete plans and costs, which must examine at least a status quo, replace, and renovate proposals.

Each phase of the project to renovate each elementary school and close the Cushman School could take between five and six years.

It may also require three override votes – one for each school project – depending on how officials decide to structure the projects. Already skeptical of the town’s willingness to vote in favor of one override, Chair Shannon Jenkins noted that could be a tough sell.

Member John Nunes referenced the failed 2007 override vote that necessitated the closure of the Gidley and Cushman Schools.

“We told people we would have to close the Gidley and Cushman Schools and introduce fees, and we still got it handed to us,” Nunes said.

Without a clear consensus on how to move forward, the committee decided to reach out to the Massachusetts School Building Authority and ask officials from the agency to meet with district officials and see Dartmouth’s schools firsthand. Community outreach is planned after district officials hear back from the building authority.

Kiely said he would relay to the building authority that officials are aiming to implement its facilities master plan but have hit a crossroads, and are looking for insight on funding and recommendations from the school building authority.