Weymouth school officials have taken the first step toward deciding whether to continue to maintain the Maria Weston Chapman Middle School, or replace it. Either option will cost the town millions of dollars, officials said.
The School Committee voted unanimously at its last meeting to form a subcommittee to investigate whether it’s worth putting more money into the 51-year-old building. Mayor Susan Kay, who sits on the School Committee, suggested the study after learning that the school needs about $8 million in repairs — $7 million of it to get rid of an exterior coating that was applied to prevent old asbestos-laden paint from getting into the air.
“We have to make sure we’re not throwing money away carelessly — that the building is worth it,” said School Committee chairman Sean Guilfoyle.
He said public school buildings in Weymouth have considerable sentimental value, and that he has already received calls from several people urging him to save the Chapman School. The building had been Weymouth North High School up until 2004, when Weymouth North and South merged into the current Weymouth High School location.
“A lot of people who live in Weymouth went there,” he said.
Guilfoyle said the School Committee, which agreed to form the study panel at its September meeting, was far from making any recommendations about the Chapman building. A preliminary study would take “a month or two,” he said, and officials then would have to decide whether to invest $50,000 or so in a comprehensive feasibility study of the future of the building.
“We’re doing the big picture,” he said. “We’ll try to determine if there are other problems with the building, looking at it very cursorily at first. The building has been well maintained and I think it was very well built; I know it’s not going to fall down in the next 20 and 30 years. But is the cost to maintain it worth it? I don’t know what the result will be. Clearly, a building that size will be an expensive building to replace.”
As a measure of the possible cost, neighboring Hingham is building a new $60 million middle school that is comparable in size to the Chapman; the Weymouth school has about 1,060 students in grades 7 and 8, and the new Hingham Middle School is designed for 1,020 students in grades 6 through 8.
The state will reimburse Hingham for about 44 percent of the cost, according to Daniel Collins of the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Collins said he couldn’t estimate how much Weymouth might be reimbursed for a school project, since the state pays back communities at varying rates that “are generally based on need,” but the rates range from 31 to 80 percent of the cost.
“It’s not a simple formula,” he said.
Collins said the state reimburses for both school renovation and new construction.
“Communities don’t necessarily get more for building new instead of renovating,” he said.
Weymouth attempted unsuccessfully in 2010 to get the state to pay for the asbestos-related work at the Chapman. The town applied for money through the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s “green repair program” and was told in a letter that the Chapman plan fell outside the scope for eligible projects.
School officials discovered there was asbestos in the exterior paint of the building in 2007 when workers began a waterproofing project. Asbestos has been linked to lung disease, but tests at the Chapman found that the material there did not pose a safety hazard because it was not friable or airborne, officials said.
The asbestos-tainted paint was encapsulated in a coating, and the building is monitored regularly, said Superintendent Kenneth Salim. He said while there are no safety issues, a more permanent solution is needed.
That solution involves removing the protective coating on the Chapman’s exterior, making necessary repairs, and then repainting it, he said. The work would be done over two years and cost about $7 million, he said.
The heating pipes in the building also need attention and may need to be replaced, and the School Committee wants a feasibility study to determine the need and cost of that project.
“Over time there are maintenance challenges to a building of this age,” Salim said. “The question comes up: Do you invest in a current building or explore the possibility of having a new facility to replace it? It’s still very early on in the process.”