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Hanson school project faces crucial tests

A proposal to build a consolidated elementary school in Hanson is facing a series of crucial tests that could determine whether the plan moves forward.

On July 31, the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s board is set to vote on whether to help fund the estimated $58.4 million project, which calls for replacing the Maquan and Indian Head schools with a new 133,000-square-foot building.

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Should the agency approve funding, Hanson voters at the Oct. 7 Town Meeting will consider authorizing the full project amount. The appropriation would be contingent on passage of a debt exclusion to fund the town’s share of the project, at a Nov. 16 special election.

Ruth C. Gilbert-Whitner, superintendent of the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District, said she believes there is support for the project. The district would carry out the project, but Hanson would fund it.

“The community really uses its buildings,” she said. “I think they understand there is a need for a good community facility that can be used for a long time into the future.”

Gilbert-Whitner said she believes voters will recognize the benefit of consolidating two aging buildings that they would otherwise have to repair without the help of state funds.

The project would mark the latest in a series that the district has undertaken to update its buildings over the past two decades.

Included has been the regional high school, which opened in 2005, and the Hanson middle school, which opened in 1998. The district also renovated and expanded. around 2000, the Whitman middle school, the two Whitman elementary schools, and the Indian Head.

The proposed new school would serve 800 kindergarten to fifth-grade students from the existing Maquan and Indian Head schools and would provide space for a preschool center serving 60 students from both towns.

The Maquan, on School Street, serves 349 kindergarten to second-grade students and all of the district’s 81 preschool students. The Indian Head, across the street, serves 413 third- to fifth-grade students. Both buildings would be razed when the new school opened.

The school building authority would reimburse the district for 59 percent of the cost if it agrees to provide funding.

The Maquan school, which was built in 1963 and has a 1988 addition, is an “aging building with aging infrastructure,” Gilbert-Whitner said. She said that the heating system, in particular, is original to the building and a challenge to maintain, and that the building has sustained flooding.

The Indian Head, which was built in 1951 and was added to in 1960 and 1999, has a roof that is in need of replacement, Gilbert-Whitner said, noting that some of its slates have fallen, forcing the district to cordon off part of the area underneath. The heating system is also in worn condition and the window support structures are deteriorated.

In addition to providing a new facility, the project would enhance instruction because combining two schools would allow for more staff collaboration, Gilbert-Whitner said.

“Having everyone in the same building would definitely be more conducive to team planning and program coordination,” she said.

The district originally applied for state funds in 2007 for a Maquan school project, the focus of a study it performed at that time. But during a subsequent study, new concerns about the Indian Head roof prompted the district to explore a project for both buildings. Those discussions began after town voters in 2011 rejected a debt exclusion to fund $800,000 in repairs to the Indian Head roof.

The school building authority last November concurred with the results of the study, which recommended the current project and advanced it to schematic design.

Stephen Amico, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen and a member of the local School Building Committee, said he supports the district’s plan.

“I think it will be a wonderful project for the town,” he said. “For every dollar we spend, we don’t get any money back on repairs to those two schools. But if we build a new school and tear those schools down right now, you are looking at about 59 percent reimbursement, which means that the dollar we spend really only costs us 41 cents.”

Selectman David Soper opposes the plan.

“I think the Maquan school has some problems we need to spend some money on,” he said. But he said now is not the right time to take on the expense of a new school “when not everyone is employed, when we have got foreclosures still happening, [and] there is still vacant commercial space in town.”

Soper added that the town is still paying off the debt from other capital investments, including construction of the high school and a new police station.

“Everyone is excited about a new school,” he said. “I’d be excited if I thought we could afford it.”

Soper also questioned the wisdom of demolishing the Indian Head school less than 15 years from having renovated it, an action he said would result in the town having to repay the state for some of its reimbursement for the project. Amico estimated that cost at $600,000 to $800,000, but said it was outweighed by the benefits of the project. Amico said the repairs at the Maquan could cost $15 million to $18 million and those to the Indian Head $5 million to $6 million. By building new, he said, the town could end up paying about $29 million.

“And you are going to get more energy efficiency and no repairs for a long period of time,” he said, adding that the combining of two schools would also mean a savings in personnel.

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