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Braintree

Two old schools cleared to sell

Two unused school buildings in Braintree are about to help solve overcrowding issues, but not by providing classroom spaces.

The Eldridge and Foster elementary schools were declared surplus buildings by Braintree’s School Committee last last month, which effectively relinquishes School Committee control and allows them to be sold.

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Town officials hope that the sales proceeds, which could exceed $3.5 million, can be used to support additions to existing schools, shrinking class sizes, and letting out the seams on often overcrowded buildings.

“Foster and Eldridge we’ve looked at every year,” said School Committee chairwoman Shannon Hume, who said the buildings are too small to reopen as schools.

“Eldridge has five classrooms and Foster has seven — that’s not many classrooms,’’ she said. “It won’t address space needs in the district, and the operating cost [is] too high to warrant opening a building for such a small space.”

The fate of the old buildings is largely up in the air. The Eldridge, closed for over a decade, was rented to Head Start until it left last year. Foster has not been a school since the mid-1970s, and most recently was rented to a program for disabled adults.

But selling the buildings opens up opportunities, and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan has some ideas.

“Both schools are neighborhood [buildings] . . . they avail themselves to neighborhood use — a Montessori school or some other type of educational collaborative or some type of residential usage,” Sullivan said. “We need to manage what gets purchased or who purchases so we’re sensitive to neighborhood concerns.”

Selling school properties for profit or other uses is not uncommon, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

“Happens all the time,” he said. “A lot of times buildings are converted to another use, sometimes they are developed as private property.”

Typical uses include elderly or affordable housing, office space, or charter schools. In Dedham, for example, the building that used to house Avery Elementary School reopened last month as the Mother Brook Arts and Community Center. In Cambridge, the North Cambridge Catholic High School was converted into condominiums in 2010.

Koocher added that if the Massachusetts School Building Authority paid for any renovations, it gets first dibs on a property. It’s more common that a building is transformed for another public use, but the private sale of a property is by no means rare, Koocher said.

Selling off old buildings makes a lot of sense, both for communities with declining enrollment, and those who need new solutions for space.

“The cost of renovation is often unreasonable compared to the cost of new construction,” Koocher said. “The cost of renovating is often prohibitive, given the longer shelf life of a new building and the greater technologies you can add.”

In Braintree, officials are just beginning to figure out how to sell the buildings, said Peter Morin, chief of staff and operations for the town.

“The next step is to evaluate what an appropriate new use would be that would provide revenue for the schools and complement the neighborhoods that they are in,” Morin said. “Whether it’s continued use of the building as a nonprofit . . . or if it’s residential use or what have you.”

According to Morin, the town is months, if not a year, away from any sale, but the housing market is ripe for this kind of transaction.

“This isn’t a move out of panic or distress,” Morin said. “This is a deliberate step in a process, and we’re in a very solid financial position. We’re just trying to maximize the benefit we can derive out of these assets.”

That benefit could be substantial.

Eldridge, an 8,371-square-foot building on 6.3 acres of land, is assessed at $1.15 million, according to assessor records.

Foster, with a 16,870-square-foot building on 11.3 acres, was assessed at about $2.6 million for the land and building.

Though the sale price could differ vastly from the assessed price, assessing clerk Megan Barry said, the valuation for tax purposes is typically 90 to 95 percent of the fair market value, and she noted that parcels typically sell for higher than their assessed rates.

Whether each parcel will be sold as one piece or several has yet to be decided.

The properties “could be split up. With both of them, the existing structure and the land could be sold, and portions of it could be retained by the town as a park or open space,” Morin said. “It could be subdivided into lots. A number of different options would be considered.”

According to Morin, the town will seek bids to find an agreeable option once the choices are narrowed down.

Public input would play a key role to determine use. The town will have additional opportunity to weigh in through the zoning and planning process once a bid is selected.

Regardless of what happens to the old schools, the town is looking to address space needs at existing schools, although when, how, and where is an ongoing conversation.

In the immediate future, school officials are looking for space in the previously closed Monatiquot School to open in the fall of 2014. Programs such as full-day kindergarten may be best suited for the space, which has been rented out to a Montessori program for the past several years.

“We’ll be discussing what is best to go into that school,” Hume said.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@ gmail.com.
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