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Medford City Council approves $13.8m science lab project

After four hours of debate and pleas from parents and educators, the Medford City Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously, 7-0, to approve a $13.8 million science lab project at Medford High School.

Councilors did not approve a bond request to pay the city’s share of the project, opting to wait until this Tuesday, when more information about interest rates is due to be provided.

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The School Committee approved the design for the new labs in August. But the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will pay 60 percent of the project cost, also requires approval of the City Council.

The state set a speedy timeline for renovations to be completed. Project designs are due by the end of this year, and most construction must be completed in 2013.

“We are on a schedule set by the MSBA, not the city of Medford,” Mayor Michael J. McGlynn told councilors Tuesday. “We have to follow what it is they want to accomplish.”

But some councilors said they felt pressured, at a time when the city is facing other capital projects, such as building a new public works facility to replace the current one, which was recently condemned because of structural concerns. Employees have been relocated to rented space on Commercial Street.

“How do we find ourselves in a predicament, a situation, where every issue is urgent?” asked Councilor Michael Marks.

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Councilor Paul Camuso chided the School Committee for sending a recorded telephone message to residents, encouraging them to attend the council meeting to support the project.

“To use the city’s robocall [system] to lobby an elected body is absurd as far as I’m concerned,” Camuso said. “It’s way out of line.”

McGlynn responded that public meetings are “the people’s forum . . . I think it was very transparent to let people know what’s going on.”

As for the science labs, those who spoke at the meeting pressed for the upgrade.

“They were far from state-of-the-art a decade ago,” said Maryanne Yaeger-Johnson, a 2002 Medford High graduate who is now a physical therapist and parent. “Do you know what formaldehyde smells like when it’s improperly ventilated? Not so good. “

Eric Martin, an electrical engineer and parent of three, said the project is critical to prepare Medford students for jobs in the sciences.

“The school system has got to train them to be productive in a laboratory,” he said. “For our kids to have a competitive advantage, they’re going to need this.”

The current labs were built in 1972. Equipment is outdated, ventilation is poor, and the roof leaks, among other issues.

“Quite frankly, they’re a disgrace,” said School Superintendent Roy Belson.

The project would build eight new labs, renovate nine labs, install a new roof, replace windows, and purchase new furniture and fixtures. New plumbing and electrical systems also would be installed. The council’s approval would allow DiNisco Design Partnership of Boston to draw up schematic designs to submit to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

In July 2011, the authority launched a $60 million Science Laboratory Initiative, using federal dollars from the 2009 stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Medford was one of 10 school districts selected statewide to receive funding. The city is in line to receive 60 percent reimbursement, or $8.2 million of the project’s cost, according to estimates.

“This will allow us to teach science the way it’s supposed to be taught,” Belson said.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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