The Scituate School Committee voted unanimously this week to move ahead with plans to build a new middle school next to the high school — hoping to join the list of districts on track to get state approval and money for school construction projects.
Abington, Holbrook, and Plymouth received the go-ahead from the Massachusetts School Building Authority in March to proceed with new school designs. Scituate hopes to win similar approval at the July 30 meeting of the authority’s board of directors, Superintendent John McCarthy said.
The project is estimated to cost between $64 million and $66 million — with the state potentially reimbursing 41 percent — and ultimately will need approval from Town Meeting and in a town referendum .
“If all goes well, you’re probably talking shovels in the ground sometime in the fall of 2015, and occupying it the fall of 2017,” McCarthy said.
The design will not be one of the “model schools” embraced by the state and numerous communities south of Boston, including Hingham and Quincy, since the program began in 2009, McCarthy said.
He said Scituate had expected to be steered in that direction when it began its planning process in 2011, but was encouraged by the state school building authority to focus instead on educational needs. The agency has not approved a “model school” project since 2012, according to spokesman Dan Collins.
McCarthy said the committee studying school needs in Scituate decided early on that it wouldn’t make sense financially or educationally simply to renovate the Gates Intermediate School, which now houses about 500 seventh- and eighth-graders.
‘It’s one of the oldest schools on the South Shore and it’s really showing its age.’
Built in 1916 as a high school and added onto over the years — with a resulting 16 level changes inside — the Gates has accessibility issues for people with physical disabilities, as well as a layout of individual classrooms off long corridors that don’t fit with the current cooperative approach toward education, McCarthy said.
“It’s one of the oldest schools on the South Shore and it’s really showing its age,” he said. “More importantly, educationally it was built for another generation. We’re trying to build something more 21st-century for a real collaborative team approach, with more flexible, open space.”
The study committee considered tearing down all or most of the Gates and replacing it with a new school, as well as building a new school on 22 acres of vacant school property on the corner of Route 3A and Mann Lot Road. Both ideas were rejected, for logistical problems or the disruption they would create for students.
The options all had similar estimated price tags of between $63 million and $67 million, according to Shane Nolan of Daedulus Projects, which is managing the project for the town. “There was no one option that really looked like it would be better value than the others,” he said.
The plan approved by the study committee and School Committee would take a wing of the high school and incorporate it into a new grade 6 through 8 middle school, so the schools would be connected.
McCarthy said because of declining enrollment, the high school — which has gone from having about 1,200 to fewer than 900 students — has space to accommodate the middle school classes.
Total enrollment in the district is about 3,100 and is expected to dip to between 2,700 and 2,800 in the next five years, he said.
“The advantage educationally [for combining the middle and high schools] is the ability to share staff and resources, and for advanced middle school students to take a high school class,” McCarthy said. “We saw the benefits educationally as pretty strong.
“It’s a trend in education,” he added. “Rockland just built one, and Abington is talking about it.”
(Abington is considering replacing its middle and high schools with a combined facility; meanwhile, Holbrook is designing one school in place of its three existing ones.)
If the Scituate plan to build at the high school site is approved, a domino effect could take place with other public buildings in town, McCarthy said.
He said there’s interest in renovating the Gates Intermediate School to become Town Hall. And planning has begun to build a combined police and fire station in North Scituate, on the 22 acres of wooded property now under school control.
If Town Hall and the public safety departments moved from their sites next to Scituate High School, “potentially that whole area in front of the school could become playing fields. It could be a real win-win,” McCarthy said.
“The school project has to come first,” he added. “So far, it’s been a very good process. We’re all really excited about it.”
“There’s a lot of work ahead,” said Robyn Levirne, a School Committee member who chairs the School Building Committee. “Before it was conceptual — all bubbles and blocks. Now we get to dig into the details.”