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School district studies next step

Lincoln school officials have until the end of February to gauge community support for the Lincoln School renovation and construction project, and decide whether to move forward with existing plans or start over with a new design.

Mary Pichetti, director of capital planning for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, said in a letter to Superintendent Rebecca McFall on Dec. 14 that the Lincoln district had until Feb. 28 to “assess community support and examine how best to proceed.’’

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But the letter also states that if Lincoln decides to make any design changes, local officials would have to go back to the beginning of the application process for state funding, and seek another invitation from the authority to enter its feasibility study phase. Pichetti’s letter also said the state would not contribute any funds toward the new feasibility study.

Jennifer Glass,  the Lincoln School Committee’s chairwoman, said the School Building Authority’s letter clarifies the process for the town, which must now decide how to proceed.

“I was hopeful it would steer us onto a path of figuring out where we go from here and I think it does that,” Glass said. “Having a clear letter makes it an easier conversation.”

She said that since receiving the state’s response, school officials have followed up to clarify questions about the process.

“They were clear that Lincoln’s first task is to determine if there are ways to address the concerns that were raised and gain town support,” Glass said.

‘A number of us have also made suggestions . . . for a process that helps build consensus in support of a building design and site plan that better represents Lincoln’s values.’

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“If there is a direction that is promising, we can then develop it enough to understand whether or not it is significantly different from the current project and present it to the MSBA.”

Glass said school officials have set up meetings and workshops starting next month to get the community’s feedback about the project, and help them decide how to proceed.

“We really want a high level of participation from the community in the next couple of months as we try to address people’s concerns,” she said.

The first workshop will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. on Jan. 9 in the Reed Gym at the Lincoln School.

Glass said officials will have to decide by Feb. 28 whether they have enough support to put the project up for another vote or go back to the drawing board with some changes.

School officials had proposed a $49.9 million project that included renovating portions of the K-8 school campus and some new construction. The state had agreed to pay $20.9 million toward the project as long as Lincoln residents approved it.

A two-thirds majority for a tax increase to pay for the project was needed at Town Meeting last month, but the proposal, while winning by a 370-321 tally, fell roughly 90 votes short of the threshold. Residents raised concerns about the environmental and aesthetic changes to the school grounds, the cost, and the overall process for developing the plan.

When a community does not approve funding for a proposed project, school officials must submit a report to the School Building Authority within 10 days that presents the vote results, outlines possible reasons why the project was not approved, and describes the school district’s plan to obtain support for the project.

Lincoln’s letter requested more time to address concerns raised by residents, and the state agreed.

Pichetti’s letter says that if the town decides to revise the proposed renovations and other work to the school that had gained the authority’s support, the district will have to submit a new statement of interest and await a second invitation from the authority to enter the feasibility study phase. If the School Building Authority’s board of directors agrees to issue a second invitation, the authority would require the district to repeat the selection process for a project manager and designer, and pay for a new feasibility study “without any financial participation from the MSBA for these phases of the work.”

Alvin Schmertzler, a cochairman of Lincoln’s building committee, said a key question the town needs answered is whether there can be any differences in the plan. He said he wonders whether a change in how the project is placed on the site would trigger the authority’s requirement for a new application.

“We need to know how much latitude we have and what would be considered a different project,” he said.

If the district decides to stick with the same design, it would have to try again to win voter approval.

If the district successfully secures that support for its original project and the School Building Authority’s board of directors votes to continue its funding support, the school district would remain in the capital pipeline, Pichetti said.

“All work that the district and MSBA have undertaken to date, including the feasibility study, would be retained and would form the basis of any potential project at the Lincoln K-8 school,’’ the letter states.

Glass said school officials plan to discuss the best ways to communicate with the public and to get as much feedback as possible.

“We will want to try to use the next couple of months to communicate the MSBA’s response and where that leads us in terms of our options,’’ Glass said.

Lincoln resident Ken Hurd said he is part of a group of architects that has been working to come up with a design that the entire town can get behind. Hurd said he was not happy with the original design because it calls for demolishing the Lincoln School’s Smith Building, a portion of which was built less than 20 years ago, in favor of a new structure that eats up open space and places all parking in front.

“A number of us have also made suggestions to the School Building Committee for a process that helps build consensus in support of a building design and site plan that better represents Lincoln’s values, but it remains to be seen how they choose to proceed,’’ Hurd said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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