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Newburyport

June 5 vote to decide fate of two schools

Senior center included in tax hike proposals

One-third of the pupils enrolled at Bresnahan Elementary School learn in a modular classroom. At the Nock-Molin school, steel brackets hold together a concrete block wall in the gym. Less noticeable perhaps, but just as significant, are the issues facing Newburyport’s seniors, who must shuttle to and from sites scattered throughout the city to receive services from the Council on Aging.

Hoping to remedy these problems, local leaders have scheduled a referendum for June 5 on three comprehensive capital projects: construction of a new Bresnahan school, major renovations to the Nock/Molin school building, and a new community/senior center, which would be carved out of the existing Bresnahan.

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Voters will be asked to approve three separate debt exclusions, or temporary property tax hikes, to fund the debt service on the projects. The referendum questions have not yet been written. City officials said they are awaiting final cost estimates.

“We have been given an amazing opportunity to help both the young and the old in our community,’’ said Meghan Kinsey, chairwoman of the Port Pride Community Building Project, a grass-roots group formed recently to champion the three projects. “At this stage, we’re trying to figure out how to clearly communicate to the voting public what is at stake.’’

Social media sites like Facebook have coffees scheduled, and the newbres.org website will play an integral role in conveying the importance of the projects, she said. But tours of the two schools also will be key, giving voters a chance to see the buildings first-hand.

Newburyport for years had unsuccessfully requested state approval of the school projects. Finally, in March 2010, the Nock/Molin School was invited into the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s funding pipeline; however, before the project could move forward, the district had to meet some prerequisites. A year later, in March 2011, the Bresnahan school also got the green light from the building authority. Feasibility studies for both school projects have been completed.

Built on High Street in the mid-1950s, the Bresnahan school serves students in grades 1-3. The Nock-Molin building, on Low Street, was erected in the early 1970s and houses the sixth- to eighth-grade Nock Middle School and the fourth- and fifth-grade Molin Upper Elementary School.

‘We’re moving at a rapid pace to keep these projects on track. Given the reimbursement level, I think it’s the right time to address the capital needs of our schools.’

Donna D. Holaday Newburyport mayor who favors the school and senior center projects
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The Bresnahan school was accepted into the authority’s Model School Program, which would allow the district to model the design of the building after a completed project, saving both time and money. The Newburyport project would be based on the East Fairhaven Elementary School, which was designed by HMFH Architects Inc. in Cambridge.

Like the Fairhaven school, the new Bresnahan would incorporate pre-K and kindergarten. The school would merge the existing Bresnahan with the Brown Elementary School, which would close.

The building authority has set base reimbursement rates for the two school projects: 44.89 percent for Bresnahan and 44.26 percent for Nock/Molin. However, because the new Bresnahan would be a model school project, the authority would add an extra 5 percentage points to its reimbursement rate, according to Mayor Donna D. Holaday. Both schools would also receive extra points if they include specific maintenance and energy saving, or “green,’’ features.

“We’re moving at a rapid pace to keep these projects on track,’’ said Holaday. “Given the reimbursement level, I think it’s the right time to address the capital needs of our schools.’’

Holaday also supports transforming a portion of the existing Bresnahan building into a senior center, if a new Bresnahan school is built. She noted that the city’s seniors have never had a center, though there was talk over the years of building one at Cushing Park or combining a senior center with the new youth center in the former Kelley school.

Roseann Robillard, who has served as director of the city’s Council on Aging for 20 years, said Newburyport’s seniors are excited about the proposal. A new senior center would allow the council to centralize and expand its services, she said.

Currently, seniors must go to the public library on State Street to discuss their health insurance needs, to the Elks Lodge on Low Street for exercise classes, and to the local United Methodist Church on Purchase Street for the council’s lunch program. Robillard, meanwhile, is housed in the Salvation Army building on Water Street.

And with the city’s senior population expected to increase through 2050, it is vitally important to bring all senior services under a single roof, she said, noting that about 25 percent of Newburyport’s 17,416 residents are age 60 or older.

“We just felt it would be a travesty to tear down bricks and mortar,’’ said Robillard. “The location is ideal. The opportunity is once in a lifetime.’’

Port Pride is scheduled to hold an informational meeting for residents interested in volunteering with the organization at 7 p.m. March 1 in the Unitarian Universalist Church at 26 Pleasant St.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com
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