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In Carver, a change of heart on school

More backing now for a new K-5 building

Carver has been seeking to build a new elementary school for a long time — longer than it takes a local student to go through all the grades of the current kindergarten through Grade 5 school. And there’s still a lot of time and a lot of work to be done before a new school becomes reality.

Barry Struski, chairman of the town’s School Building Committee, became involved with school governance when his older child was attending the elementary school, a building many parents already believed was in tough shape. That son just graduated from high school.

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Following a rare, unanimous expression of voter support at Town Meeting, the School Building Committee recently took its first step toward a building plan for a new elementary school by deciding to seek an engineering study on the viability of three possible sites.

Two sites are in addition to the one proposed six years ago, the Main Street location of the current elementary school. A feasibility study approved a new building on that site and the Massachusetts School Building Authority backed it for funding, but voters three times turned down a school project planned for construction there.

Some critics of that proposal said a new school could be built more economically elsewhere. Now with an eye fixed candidly on maintaining public backing, supporters said they are determined to maintain a “transparent” and inclusive process in drawing up a new elementary school building project.

“We thought it was a slam-dunk” on the original site, Struski said in an interview. “Some citizens suggested other sites. We thought we should look them over with the help of an engineer.”

Two of the sites are on different parts of the Carver Middle High School campus, and the third is the current Governor John Carver Elementary School site, but involving a different configuration than previously proposed.

Scaling back

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Officials and parents are hopeful that this time the town will end up with a new school, citing a high level of public support. Town Meeting unanimously approved $410,000 for site and feasibility studies last month.

“It was great,” Struski said. “We have so many people working for this. Businessmen, engineers, teachers, parents, and grandparents, people who don’t have children. . . . The sense we got from Town Meeting is that everyone seems to agree that it needs to be done. . . . We want to have it transparent, hearing from everyone.”

School Superintendent Liz Sorrell expressed optimism. “I sense a very different level of support than we had before,” she said, “particularly in the engagement of young families, families who don’t have children in school yet. They are coming to meetings and speaking publicly.”

In May 2011, in the most recent vote seeking funding for the earlier project, voters rejected a $45 million building by 30 votes, with only 20 percent of the town’s registered voters going to the polls.

Serving all the town’s students in grades K-5, the elementary school consists of two “educationally deficient buildings, with not enough room for educational services . . . which are falling all around us,” Sorrell said. The structures suffer problems with roofs, windows, doors, and building systems. The school has also been cited by state inspectors for not having enough space for special education. Guaranteed a high degree of state funding given the buildings’ poor shape and Carver’s finances, the original building proposal would have increased property tax bills by an average of $200 a year.

But a majority of those who went to the polls voted no. Some opponents said key decisions were made by too few people. Some contended that better sites were available and that the overall proposal was not as economical as it should be. Others said they could not afford any tax increase at all.

But a no vote did not remove the need for a new facility, school supporters maintained. Following a town survey in which respondents were virtually unanimous in recognizing the need for a new building, parents pushed town officials to re-start the process of seeking state financial assistance to build a school.

The state board agreed to let the town try again, but required that the process start over at the beginning.

The original plan, the result of six-year-old studies, is dead, Sorrell said. While that plan called for a 925-student school, enrollment projections have lowered, and the state has now said it will consider funding assistance for a 750-student school with 36 classrooms, plus seven more spaces for a preschool and special needs classes.

The site engineering study approved by the building committee is a preliminary step in a multi-stage process, Sorrell said. “The vote was to procure an engineering firm to determine whether any one of these three sites is an acceptable spot,” she said. “Septic, waste water, a well. You have to have room for all of these things.”

The site proposed in the earlier project and approved by a feasibility study is still viable, she said.

Officials don’t know how much the site study will cost. As for a building project, Sorrell said it was too early, with too many variables, to estimate its cost at this time. The new building will be smaller, but some construction costs have increased.

However long the journey takes this time, Struski said, it needs to result in a new school.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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