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Needham split on sites for two schools

Cricket Field, being considered for a school project, is too valuable as a venue for recreational activities, neighbors say.

The Boston Globe/file 2004

Cricket Field, being considered for a school project, is too valuable as a venue for recreational activities, neighbors say.

Proposals to replace or repair two aging elementary schools in Needham have drawn criticism from some local residents, and have raised concern that open space in town will be swallowed up by construction.

Town officials are discussing three concepts for the future of Hillside Elementary School and Mitchell Elementary School, but one proposal, calling for construction of a new Hillside school at Cricket Field, has sparked fierce debate. It has also inspired the creation of a “Save Cricket Field” movement, complete with custom-made T-shirts, and another movement of Hillside parents who want all ­options considered.

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“We moved to the Cricket Field ­area because we have this beautiful green space in our district,” resident Sue Owen said at a Board of Selectmen meeting attended by about 75 people Tuesday night. “If we lose that, we feel like it would change our neighborhood.”

The Park and Recreation Commission, which has jurisdiction over Cricket Field, has asked the School Committee to take the property out of consideration for the Hillside project.

At a School Committee meeting Tuesday, members decided not to vote on the request, saying they did not want to limit their thinking or appear to be endorsing any one option.

“This report is literally hot off the presses,” Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said of a “pre-feasibility study’’ of the options released July 6. “I think it would be premature to take any options off.”

School Committee chairwoman Heidi Black described the findings of the study as “very, very preliminary,” and said that none of the options is preferred.

Asks patience

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At Tuesday’s School Committee and Board of Selectmen meetings, she tried to reassure worried residents that the study is a starting point, not a definitive document.

Cost estimates for all three options range from around $75 million to $90 million. The town plans to apply for funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to help pay for the new facilities.

The first option in the study is to renovate or rebuild both schools at their present locations. School Committee members have said this is the option they prefer, but only if it is possible to build schools big enough to accommodate the nearly 1,000 students who make up the enrollment for both schools.

There are several major problems with the Hill­side site that could make that difficult. According to the study, the elementary school sits on a 24.6 acres, but wetlands and buffer zones shrink the usable area to just under 6 acres. The site is prone to flooding, and there are questions about whether the land is contaminated by chemicals that seeped into the soil and ground water in the 1980s. The state Depart­ment of Environmental Protection is monitoring the site, the study said.

The possible contamination probably would not prevent construction, but would make it more costly, according to the study

The second option is to build a new sixth-grade school at ­DeFazio Field, renovate or ­rebuild Mitchell, turn the High Rock School into an elementary school, and do major redistricting.

The third option, the one that has raised hackles around town, is to build the new Hillside at Cricket Field, and renovate or rebuild Mitchell.

Cricket Field is a nearly 7-acre area with two multi­purpose playing fields, a sandlot dia­mond for neighborhood pick-up baseball and kickball games, a half-court basketball area, a playground, a memorial garden, and a parks department building used for storage and summer programs, according to the study. It was donated to the town in 1938 and is deeded for recreation, park, and educational use.

Both the School Committee and Board of Selectmen meetings drew large crowds, with many residents decked out in green and white “Save Cricket Field” shirts; many were also carrying signs, some in support of dropping the Cricket idea and others in support of keeping all options open.

“We don’t want to be a Build on Cricket Field group where there’s a Save Cricket Field group,” Hillside parent Seth Bloom said in an interview. “It’s just that we seem to need as many options as possible.”

Hillside parents are concerned that if their children’s school cannot be renovated where it stands, redistricting will spread their close-knit school community over the town’s other schools.

“We love Hillside; it’s an amazing community, and it would be a terrible shame to see it divided,” Joanna Herrera said at the selectmen’s meeting. “Our goal here is not to build on Cricket Field; it’s to let the process continue as it should.”

Residents who live near Cricket Field, however, worry that their open space would be sacrificed when other options have not been fully considered.

“I’m concerned that the School Committee is not taking the broad enough focus on what the alternatives are,” said Howard Furman. “I’m concerned that Cricket is an easy solution. It may save temporary costs. I’m concerned that they’re not looking at the long term of what’s good for the town.”

The School Committee is still a long way from a final ­decision. The panel hopes to submit a statement of interest to the state School Building Authority sometime this fall, Gutekanst said. If the authority accepts the district’s statement of interest, Needham would have 270 days to secure funding for a feasibility study, which would be a more comprehensive look at the options for renovation or rebuilding.

The town would also have to ­secure funding for the building project, probably through a Proposition 2½ override that would temporarily raise property taxes, he said.

Optimistically, construction on the first school would not begin until sometime in 2015, Gutekanst said.

Doors could open in September 2017, he said, and then construction on the second school would begin.

Black, the School Committee’s chairwoman, the panel will not be making any decisions about where or how to construct or renovate the schools until it has done a feasibility study, and had “a robust, transparent conversation with the community about the things that are important to us.”

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