An architecture firm hired by the Watertown Public Schools laid out a vision for how all five of the town’s schools could be renovated so they can provide a 21st century education, and recommended doing all three elementary schools at once followed by the high school and finally the middle school.
Thursday night, Ai3 Principal Scott Dunlap presented a plan for upgrading Watertown’s five public schools over the next several years to a meeting held by both the School Committee and Town Council.
The timeline laid out by Ai3 – a firm that works solely on school projects – would start planning for the three elementary schools immediately with the goal of starting construction in late 2019 and completing the work by early 2021, Dunlap said. Meanwhile, the district would be working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to get funding for and renovate Watertown High School. Construction would begin at the high school in early 2021. The timeline does not have an end date for work at WHS.
Being accepted into the MSBA program can be tough, with only about 30 schools out of 150 applicants chosen each year, Dunlap said. This is the fourth year that Watertown has applied to be part of the MSBA program, but Dunlap is confident the school will be accepted this year.
“The high school has the needs to get into the School Building Program,” Dunlap said. “The School Committee reworked the application and now it is in good position to move forward and be awarded a grant.”
Watertown Middle School was also examined, and Dunlap suggested renovating the school through the MSBA program, which would provide up to half the cost of the construction. However, the district can only have one school in the state program at once, so the middle school would have to wait until after work at the high school is done.
Dunlap recommended that the elementary schools not be done through the state’s program in part because only one school can be worked on at once, plus it would not be as cost effective because the state will not pay for work on auditoriums and gyms at elementary schools.
Ai3 was hired to review school facilities studies and come up with a game plan and schedule for renovating the schools. The firm also designs schools, but School officials have not yet chosen an architectural firm to design the schools.
Dunlap recommended working on all three elementary schools at once, rather than one at a time. He said that would allow the district to hire one contractor, save money by avoiding rising construction costs and it would likely be more popular with parents.
“We found if you split them up and do not do all the projects at the same time there is a lack of confidence (from parents of schools later in the schedule) that the construction will eventually get to their school,” Dunlap said.
One question School officials have had is whether the elementary schools could be renovated while keeping the existing schools open, or whether “swing space” would be needed off site to move some students during construction. Dunlap said he believes the students could remain at their schools while the work is done.
Some worried about noise and other factors, such as air quality, for students and staff when schools are in session during the construction period. Dunlap said classrooms would not be immediately adjacent to construction zones. Safety would also be addressed.
“There are a lot of stringent requirements to ensure there is good air quality,” Dunlap said. “A licensed site professional, overseeing the environment in the building, works on any project we do and we would suggest you do so. They are on site daily monitoring those types of things.”
School officials should have the architect design options for renovation and for full reconstruction for each school so they weigh the options, Dunlap said. He added, however, that renovation will be less costly.
The renovations of the schools would provide spaces designed for 21st century education, which includes spaces for group and collaborative learning, hands-on lessons, and places for teachers to meet and plan. Also, the schools would be fully air conditioned.
“We haven’t designed a school that wasn’t fully climate controlled since 2002,” Dunlap said. “Every school we design is fully air conditioned and fully climate controlled because they are used year-round and has community use.”
Cunniff Elementary School
Cunniff has had the most pressing space needs of all the Watertown Schools. Dunlap said the school could be expanded by building a two-story wing on the spot of the current one-story classroom wing (see photo at top). He does not believe the existing building would be able to support a second story, so a new wing would need to be constructed.
The school also could be a candidate for a brand new school, which could be done by tearing doing the one-story wing, and build a new school on that spot and extending into part of the playing fields behind the school. The old school would then be torn down to provide more field and playground space.
There are six classrooms in the one-story wing, which would need to be replaced during construction by modular classrooms. Dunlap said modern modulars are very popular with teachers, and have air conditioning and good acoustics.
Hosmer Elementary School
Hosmer School is a mishmash of buildings, with a classroom building and an auditorium and gym built in 1967, and a connector built in 2002. Parts of the old classroom building cannot be brought up to modern standards, Dunlap said, and the connector is not used well. Parts of the Homer building get very cold in the winter and sweltering in hot weather.
One of the more likely scenarios at Hosmer would be to tear down the 2002 addition and replace it with a new classroom building. The auditorium and gym would be kept and renovated and part of the existing classroom wing would be renovated. The other part of the old wing would be knocked down at the end of the project and a new preschool building would be built in its place. Most students would be able to stay in the school during construction, Dunlap said, but the preschool (located in the 2002 addition) would be moved into modular classrooms during construction.
Lowell Elementary School
The layout of the rooms at Lowell Elementary School, including some larger classrooms, makes it flexible enough to provide 21st-century teaching, Dunlap said.
A likely plan for Lowell Elementary School would be to add a three-story classroom wing on the west side of the building, mirroring the 1996 addition on the east side, Dunlap said. Students could remain in the school during construction with no need for modular classrooms, he said.
Watertown High School
The focus of the meeting was on the three elementary schools, but Dunlap said that the most likely scenario for the high school would be to renovate the current building. Part of the focus would be to use the space in the 1970s addition (closest to the cemetery) and use it more effectively.
Some suggested looking for a spot to build a new high school. Councilor Aaron Duskhu said he believes there could be a similar sized lot if the land where the Lowell School is located is combined with the property that includes the school’s upper playground and playing field. Dunlap said he had not looked at that scenario, but ruled out using the space in front of the school because of the significant elevation change on that hill.
Recreation Director and Watertown Parent Peter Centola said he likes the idea of building a high school at the Lowell site. Parent Kate Coyne said she believes the Lowell School sitting on top of the hill is one of the town’s gems and she would not want to see it knocked down.
One major hurdle for tearing down the Lowell, as well as parts of the high school and middle school, is the historic status of the buildings, Dunlap said. The schools have historic status under the state’s rules, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission would need to approve the demolition of the historic portions. He noted that there are different and more strict rules for demolishing public buildings compared to private homes.
Watertown Middle School
Renovation of Watertown Middle School would be many years down the road. Dunlap said the school has been able to work with the current configuration.
“The school is usable and the staff is not letting the floor plans prevent them from creating innovative, project-based programs,” Dunlap said.
The middle school does have needs, Dunlap said, and he believes it would also qualify for MSBA funding, but that will have to wait until the high school project finishes.
Planning and Paying for the Projects
To get the project rolling to meet the timeline laid out by Ai3, the School Committee and Town Council will soon have to approve funding for a firm to do schematic designs and to hire an owner’s project manager (OPM) to oversee the work on the three elementary schools. He estimated it both of those would cost a total of $1.5 million to $1.6 million for the three elementary schools. According to the timeline the Town would need to approve the funds by mid-September, and an architectural firm and OPM would need to be hired by the end of October.
Completing schematic designs would take about a year, at the end of which school officials would know what the schools would look like, have detailed floor plans, plans for internal systems and have a firm construction cost estimate.
With those items in hand, School and Town officials could go to the voters for approval of funds to pay for the project. That would happen in November 2018 under Ai3’s timeline. Some districts pay for the entire project with bonds approved in a debt exclusion, Dunlap said, while others use a combination of a debt exclusion and use some money saved by the town.
The high school would follow a similar route, but before they can get to the point where officials can hire a firm to do schematic designs they must first go through the MSBA process, Dunlap said. First, the high school would need to be invited to be part of the state’s program, then the district must pull together documents to submit to the state (including an education profile, enrollment projections and maintenance documents). Finally, funding for schematic designs must be approved. Dunlap said the cost of schematic design and hiring an OPM for the high school would be about the same as the elementary schools – around $1.5 million.
The schematic design for WHS would occur during 2019, and then the town could seek another debt exclusion in early 2020 to pay for the renovation or construction, Dunlap said.
School Committee Chairman John Portz said the discussion of approval of schematic design funds would begin at the Aug. 14 School Committee meeting. Dunlap will be at that meeting, too, he said. The funds to hire an architectural firm and an OPM must be approved by the Town Council, Portz said.
Portz added that a building committee would need to be appointed to oversee the project, and that committee is appointed by the Council.
Thursday’s meeting was the first official meeting for new Superintendent Dede Galdston. She said she and her staff are “poised and ready to get us to the point where we are ready to construct these buildings.”
Galdton has experience with the MSBA, having helped build a new high school in her former position as assistant superintendent in Billerica. Also, Watertown’s Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Mary DeLai helped build schools when she was superintendent in Wilmington.
Galdston said that while buildings do not teach students, the current Watertown schools have their limitations.
“When we think about preparing students for the future, we think about what industry wants – creative thinking, problem solving, innovation,” Galdston said. “We have come to the point where we can’t do that anymore.”
She added that the name of program to renovate Watertown’s schools – Building for the Future – works on two levels.
“That is what we are doing, not just building buildings, we are also preparing students for their future,” Galdston said.