School officials in Reading are preparing to seek community feedback for the plan to convert a former St. Agnes parish school building to a town kindergarten and preschool facility.
The plan sets the stage for a Special Town Meeting in September to consider authorizing the estimated $9 million to $10 million needed to fund the acquisition and renovations to the building. The appropriation would be contingent on passage of a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, at a special election in October.
Superintendent John F. Doherty said the district will soon launch a series of public meetings on the proposal.
“We are going to start with stakeholder meetings to get input,” he said, anticipating sessions with “PTO groups, preschool parents, [those who] don’t even have children yet, elementary school parents. . . . We are going to try and get them going in two weeks.”
Reading recently negotiated a $1.4 million intent to purchase agreement with the Archdiocese of Boston for the school building on Woburn Street, according to Town Manager Peter I. Hechenbleikner. The action followed unanimous votes of approval by the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.
“There is a lot more information to be gathered,” Hechenbleikner said, noting that the town’s architect and project manager are preparing more details of the plan. But if costs come in as projected, he said he anticipates town boards will favor proceeding.
Doherty said the project is needed to ease a space crunch in the town’s five elementary schools – all of which were built or renovated in the last 20 years – that stems from a growth in programs.
The district now offers all-day kindergarten on a fee basis, and has expanded its special education programs to keep students in local schools. There also has been a rise in the number of students in the preschool program, which occupies five classrooms at the high school and two at the Wood End Elementary School.
Doherty said the town can no longer dedicate two classrooms in each of the buildings to art and music. Currently, one of the rooms in each building is used as shared space, making scheduling difficult.
The district looked at other options for addressing the space squeeze, including modular classrooms at each of the five elementary schools; additions at some or all of them; renting additional space; and building a new school for prekindergarten to fifth grade.
Doherty said there were problems with each of those alternatives, noting for example, the high cost of new school construction and the lack of any readily useable spaces to rent.
“When we looked at the option of purchasing and renovating an existing building that at one time used to be a school, it was really an attractive option and also financially the best option on the table for the town,” Doherty said.
He said the plan is also “educationally the most feasible for the district,” noting that it would solve the elementary school space issues; allow for the expansion of the preschool; and open the way to offering a full-day program for all kindergarten students.
The building the town hopes to buy is one of two that made up the St. Agnes school. Completed in 1951, the building, known as the Lower School, housed grades 1-4. The second building, constructed in 1958 and called the Upper School, housed grades 5-8, according to an account of the parish’s history on its website.
After St. Agnes was closed in 1970, the town rented both buildings for use as the Woburn Street School.
Due to a decline in the school-age population, it withdrew from the Upper School in 1978 and the Lower School in 1980, according to the parish account.
In 1979, the parish converted the Upper School to its present parish center. Since 1982, the Lower School building has been leased to the Reading Gymnastics Academy. When its lease expires at the end of June, the academy plans to relocate to North Reading, according to the Rev. Stephen Rock, pastor of St. Agnes.
The renovations to the approximately 18,000-square-foot building would include updating mechanical systems and converting the space to accommodate 16 classrooms. Site work also would be needed.
Doherty said the school would serve all preschool and kindergarten students from the two schools in that part of town: the Barrows and Eaton. It could potentially include kindergarten students from the other schools.
Rock cautioned that the plan still needs to be approved by town voters, and that an archdiocesan board and Cardinal Sean O’Malley still need to approve the sale.
But he said so far, the plan has received a favorable response from parish members.
“Everyone seems very positive,” he said, noting that the building has not been used by the parish in decades and that its sale would relieve the cost of insurance and maintenance. He said some older parishioners are especially happy the building would continue to be used for education.
Rock said that if the sale were to go forward, most of the $1.4 million proceeds would go to the parish, with some of it likely used for the ongoing renovation of the parish center.