Caught between a dilapidated preschool building and the reality of shrinking school enrollment, Dedham residents have a choice to make: Renovate now or renovate later.
School administrators say there’s an immediate need for a new preschool and they expect the state to pick up half the cost. But some other officials say the town needs to consolidate building projects or wind up paying more in the long run.
The issue at hand is Dedham’s Early Childhood Education Center, which is housed at the Capen School on Cedar Street.
The facility is inadequate for its more than 300 students, according to principal Jessica Hammond, who gave School Committee members a presentation last month showing how the school doesn’t meet safety or aesthetic standards for a preschool.
“I’m hoping these pictures will do the building the injustice it truly deserves,” Hammond said.
Stairwells at the front entrance mean the building is not handicapped-accessible and the district must hire aides to help some handicapped students go up and down, Hammond said.
The classrooms are small, the nurse’s office shares space with the building’s water heater and electrical panel, and pipes have burst in the bathrooms. One of the girls bathrooms was shut down three times in the past year for that reason, Hammond said.
Dedham’s school leaders have been preparing the former Dexter Elementary School on High Street to become the new Early Childhood Education Center, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority has all but committed to fund half of the renovation, estimated to cost between $12 million and $17 million.
For the past 20 years, Dedham has had a Childhood Education Center that takes preschool children from the whole town. Enrollment last year was 338, according to the state Department of Education.
The Dexter school, which formerly held the school administration offices, is on one level, which would be a significant improvement over the Capen School, according to school administrators.
The Dedham Public Schools Master Plan, most recently revised in 2008, calls for the preschool to be moved to the Dexter School.
The school currently has tenants — Little Sprouts, a private preschool, and the Education Cooperative, an organization that helps 16 school districts find cost-effective programs. Both would have to find new locations.
But while everyone agrees the town’s preschool should be moved, some in town worry about how this project will affect future school building projects.
Derek Moulton, chairman of the town’s School Building Rehabilitation Committee, said he would like to see the School Department pursue alternatives.
The plan he advocates is combining the Early Childhood Education Center with Riverdale Elementary School, which is Dedham’s smallest school and needs to be replaced soon, according to the master plan.
“What we do with this next project could determine what we’re forced to do over the next 25 years for future projects,” Moulton said.
If Dedham undertakes the Dexter project, Moulton said, the state might not be as generous when it comes to replacing Riverdale, which had 198 students during the last school year, according to state data.
When the bulding authority agreed to fund half of the Avery Elementary School project, completed in 2012, it told the district to look at combining schools because of dropping enrollment, Moulton said.
“We would either be forced to close a school or see if taxpayers want to pay for 100 percent of construction costs [for replacing Riverdale],” Moulton said.
Combining the preschool with Riverdale would require a building that costs about $43 million, according to Thomas Ryan, a member of the School Committee and the School Building Rehabilitation Committee.
Ryan doubted taxpayers would suppoort a $43 million project in the next two or three years, even if it were funded partly by the state. He predicted that renovations at the Dexter School would be a much easier sell and would get the students out of the Capen School faster.
He also doubted that such a large building would fit on the site of the current Riverdale school, and didn’t know where such a building would be built.
Superintendent June Doe, who has been working with the building authority to secure funding for the Dexter renovation, said the school’s staff was eager to move the Early Childhood Education Center soon.
“The building is in serious condition; the environment there is concerning,” Doe said. “We cannot wait five years to pull the children out of there.”
School Committee chairman Joe Heisler said his committee did not favor consolidating schools, even if the state building authority recommended it. Dedham’s neighborhood elementary schools make the town an attractive place to live, he said, and are one reason many families move into town.
“I would like to clearly say no one on this committee is talking about closing schools, and no one on this committee is talking about changing from the model of neighborhood schools,” Heisler said.
The decision on the preschool rests ultimately with Town Meeting. Typically, the School Building Rehabilitation Committee would recommend a warrant article jointly with the School Committee. No warrant article has yet been recommended, according to Assistant Town Administrator Nancy Baker.