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School panel OKs new Higgins Middle School in Peabody

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt is hoping a new school will be ready for the 2016-17 school year.

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt is hoping a new school will be ready for the 2016-17 school year.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the construction of a new Higgins Middle School in Peabody, and gave the green light to renovation projects in Newburyport and at Greater Lowell Regional Technical High School.

The three-floor, roughly $83 million building will be constructed next to the sprawling, antiquated Higgins, which originally opened as a high school in 1966.

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“This was a big hurdle,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt said. “The moment that it’s been decided, the city of Peabody is going to get a new middle school. We’ll have some hurdles in terms of design . . . but the fact of the matter is that this vote confirms that we are going to have a new middle school.”

DiNisco Design Partnership of Boston has a completed preliminary design that was used in the effort to get the new school approved, but now the project must go through a detailed schematic design that must be reviewed by the building authority.

The state agency will cover at least 54 percent of the project's cost — leaving the city responsible for roughly $38.2 million — and over the next few months will also consider Peabody for its Model School Program, which aims to “effectively adapt and re-use the design of successful, recently constructed elementary, middle and high schools.”

The city would save an additional 5 percent if approved for the program.

Officials are also taking steps to use environmentally friendly initiatives in the new building that could save taxpayers money by cutting down on operating costs.

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Peabody was one of three area schools to receive approval to move into the schematic design phase of a major construction project.

Greater Lowell Regional Technical High School in Tyngs­borough and Newburyport’s Rupert A. Nock Middle School also received the go-ahead for renovation projects at the authority’s board of directors meeting in Boston on Wednesday.

The proposed renovations at Greater Lowell would add 22,000 square feet of new construction to the existing facility, and address deficiencies in the building's roof, windows, plumbing, and electrical systems.

Similarly, renovations at Nock Middle School would address issues related to those systems as well as structural integrity, and would resolve significant accessibility limitations.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said the middle school project should cost roughly $27 million, and she expects to see about a 50 percent reimbursement from the state.

“It’s very good news,” she said. “It’s a 1960s building with electric heat, and 32 skylights that are leaking. We have plastic buckets all over the school catching water when it rains, and we need to upgrade.”

Officials from Greater Lowell were not immediately available to comment.

It is early to start speculating what class will be the first to graduate from the new Higgins Middle School, but Bettencourt offered a loose timeline of one year for design, followed by up to 2½ years of construction.

“If all things go well, in that school year 2016-17 the new Higgins Middle School will be ready,” Bettencourt said.

Peabody’s school officials had to show the building authority how the project would directly improve education.

The current school has many instances of classrooms being used in ways other than originally intended, such as computer labs that were once wood shops, and single rooms being split into multiple rooms with makeshift walls.

The need for science labs with up-to-date technology was a point that officials stressed to the building authority throughout the process.

“Our science classwork will grow leaps and bounds because the teachers will really be able to instruct the kids with some hands-on science experiments, and that's what we haven’t been able to do in the old building,” said Beverley Griffin Dunne, chairwoman of the Higgins School Building Committee.

The Higgins project has been in the works since 2006.

After mulling over options over six years of site and feasibility studies, assessments, and public hearings, the School Committee voted in April to build a new school.

It determined that the scope of repairs needed at the current facility would cost nearly as much as building a new one.

Officials sent their final proposal to the state in early June, and Bettencourt had reason to be confident heading into Wednesday’s vote.

“I felt that we properly addressed the questions they had, and I knew from past practice — and just knowing how the MSBA works — if there were problems they would have been reaching out to us to address some of these issues,” Bettencourt said.

“As the day of the vote got closer and we weren’t hearing from them, I thought that was a good sign that things were looking good for us.”

Ryan Mooney can be reached by e-mail at globe.mooney@yahoo.com.

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