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Stoneham

Stoneham readies for changes from school building project

The $40.6 million middle school building project will generate several changes in Stoneham that will determine where students attend classes.

The building project, expected to break ground May 18, calls for expanding and renovating the Central Elementary School to serve as the new home of the middle school. When the new school opens in the fall of 2014, the Central School — one of the town’s four prekindergarten-to-fifth-grade schools — will close.

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The School Committee has already approved a plan to convert the three other elementary schools to prekindergarten to fourth grade, and to add the fifth grade to the existing sixth-to-eighth-grade middle school when the project is completed.

In a second phase of the redistricting, a subcommittee on Thursday will recommend a plan for redrawing district lines for the remaining elementary schools, since the Central will be closing, according to Superintendent Les E. Olson.

Olson said he expects the School Committee later this spring will vote on adopting the plan on an interim basis, which would allow for revisions based on updated enrollment data this fall.

An overriding question faced by the subcommittee is whether the change in district lines should be focused solely on reassigning the Central School student population or a townwide shift. Olson said the panel will address that issue when it makes its recommendation public on Thursday.

Another subcommittee also looked at converting one of the schools to a prekindergarten and kindergarten center. Olson said the option selected had the advantage of enabling the three schools to maintain “stronger neighborhood identities.”

Stoneham residents have long shown their support for neighborhood schools, Olson said, noting that sentiment was a driving force behind the construction of the four existing elementary schools in the 1990s.

“They built the four schools in four parts of town that would not require any busing and encouraged walking,” he said.

School Committee chairman David Maurer, who supported the option of an early-education center and two first-to-fourth-grade schools, said that plan would make it easier for the district to maintain consistent class sizes across the elementary school levels, and “provide for a more homogenous curriculum.”

School Committee vice chairwoman Jeanne Craigie, who supported the plan that was selected, said she thinks there is value to maintaining a range of grade levels because of the mentoring it allows. She said the selected plan also will be “less disruptive to the entire community” and could save money because it would not require any bus transportation, while the early-education model would.

Site work for the middle school building project began last summer, with major construction getting underway in mid-April. The work will involve building an 80,213-square-foot addition to the 56,197-square-foot Central School, and targeted renovations to the existing building. The Central School and the existing middle school share a campus on Central Street.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is funding 57.5 percent of eligible costs. Town Meeting and a special election approved a debt exclusion, or temporary property tax increase, to pay for the town’s costs. It is expected to add $176 to the annual tax bill of an average single-family home.

“The community as a whole understands that the middle school has seen its day, and it’s time to move on to a new school,” Maurer said.

Olson said the changes will bring savings the district plans to tap in order to restore past cuts to elementary and middle school programs.

“We’ve lost most of our fine-arts programs and a good deal of our phys ed programs,” he said. “We don’t have the types of technology programs needed at the elementary or middle schools. . . . With the consolidation, we will be able to reassign staff in the kindergarten through eighth grades to expand curriculum offerings.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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