Holbrook took a long and winding road to building a new school, but after more than a decade of planning and unsuccessful attempts at mergers with other districts it finally opened a new building that accommodates all students this fall.
“The whole thing evolved because the town finally came together,” said School Committee chairwoman Beth Tolson. “It took a long time, but we’re here.”
Efforts to build a new high school date back to the 1970s, but they were not successful. More recently, Holbrook, with a population of approximately 11,000 people, had tried to merge with Abington and Avon, to no avail. As the district experienced generally declining enrollment, its buildings were having all kinds of problems, from old boilers to falling ceiling tiles, leaky roofs, and nails that stuck out of the boards on the auditorium stage.
And the Junior-Senior High School’s accreditation was on probation since 2005, as evaluators from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges noted the building’s deficiencies.
At one point, the building committee was evaluating 14 options on how to move forward. In the end, school officials made the decision to build one building for all students and secured a 69 percent reimbursement rate for eligible expenses from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
“There’s no way that we would be able to get multiple projects funded by MSBA,” said Barbara Davis, a longtime member of the district’s building committee and a former School Committee member. It’s not clear the residents would have voted in favor of taking on more debt for multiple buildings either, Davis said.
“It’s a good solution for a small town,” she said of the single new building.
The new school, which also houses the district’s central staff, had a budget of $102.9 million. Tolson said the project is under budget, but the entire project won’t be completed until August 2018.
The building authority has committed to contributing $55.7 million, though the dollar amount could fall if the project ends under budget.
It’s the first pre-kindergarten to grade 12 building the authority has helped to build, said its executive director, Jack McCarthy. It also had one of the longest timelines of any project the authority has assisted: The authority invited Holbrook into its program in November 2007, McCarthy said.
While the district was evaluating whether to pursue a merger or go it alone, Karen Santorelli was volunteering in the schools as a parent, beginning around 2010. She got fed up that they were in such bad shape, and wondered why. Once her son graduated in 2013, she had more time to volunteer and became the leader of a successful campaign to convince her neighbors to allow the town to borrow — and thereby raise their own taxes — so students could have a new school.
Despite a tax increase of between $600 and $700 on an average priced house in town, assessed at about $232,000, the measure passed overwhelmingly in 2014, Santorelli said.
Convincing parents with young children that a building with all ages under one roof was a good idea was a challenge, she said. But strong leadership from then-superintendent Joseph Baeta helped, she said, as did a vigorous campaign to raise awareness staged by volunteers, including herself.
The new building has two sides: JFK Elementary School for students who are in pre-kindergarden through fifth grade, and the Middle-High School for grades 6 through 12.
Only a few people have access to the doors that join the schools, and the two sides start at different times, Tolson said.
In addition to large double doors in the hallway, the schools meet in the gymnasium, which is separated by a folding wall that can be removed for large community events. Each school has its own cafeteria, though food is prepared in a shared kitchen.
The new building, at 245 S. Franklin St., was built adjacent to the former Junior/Senior High School, which has been demolished.
The elementary level has a library and media center, and there are art and music rooms, as well as iPads and laptops for students on both sides of the building, which the district didn’t have before. It lacks some amenities, such as tennis courts and a pool.
Sophomore Caroline Duggan said she is looking forward to next semester, when she will take a television production class in the school’s television studio, a feature the old high school lacked.
“I enjoy it because it’s so much different,” Duggan said of the new building.
Freshman Kylie McKeon plays a lot of sports and said she likes the new gymnasium the best, with its basketball hoops that lower into place from the ceiling. There is also a more basic component that she likes, one that works regularly, unlike in the old gym:
“We have a scoreboard now,” she said.
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