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Chronic flooding puts Countryside Elementary School project on the front burner, officials say

As part of the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s examination into a proposed $50 million project at Countryside Elementary School, Newton officials provided a narrated, virtual tour showing some challenges staff and students face — from a lack of first-floor bathrooms to a boiler room that at times has had standing water as deep as a swimming pool.

Ruth Goldman, chair of the Newton School Committee, said the biggest problem the school faces is recurring flooding and water damage due to its “very poorly sited” location.

“The MSBA doesn’t want to fix things that they feel that you can fix,” she said, but “in the case of Countryside ... that’s a legacy issue that we are unable to essentially fix.”

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The virtual walkthrough Feb. 10 was part of a study the MSBA completes before deciding the next steps for a school.

Stephanie Gilman, director of Planning, Project Management and Sustainability at Newton Public Schools, said Countryside, built in 1953, was originally created to be a “small neighborhood school.”

The original building has had several classroom additions due to rising enrollment, Gilman said, but the age and condition of the building’s systems, the lack of support spaces and additional enrollment pressures have prompted its priority status over Franklin Elementary School.

Beyond insufficient internal space, Gilman said the school is also around a wetland area.

“It does periodically flood,” Gilman said. “The boiler room is below grade, and I know that there have been issues with having standing water in the boiler room up to, like, 10 feet high.”

According to the proposal, the Department of Public Works has responded to “chronic flooding” in the school’s courtyard that “often resulted in flooding of the school itself.” There also can be “standing water accumulation at the main entry,” which “creates a safety risk.”

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Goldman said the damage sometimes extends to classrooms.

“There are classrooms that get flooded and the kids have to be moved into an empty classroom,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s some pretty nasty looking spaces at Countryside.”

She said these conditions make the building a necessary project to address.

“It was very poorly sited and it’s literally below the water table,” Goldman said. “It’s just constantly flooding and of course with climate change it’s just gotten even worse.”

Goldman said the long-term goal with Countryside is a complete re-site and rebuild.

“Countryside will be completely demolished,” Goldman said.

If invited into the MSBA process, she said “the hope” would be to rebuild on a plot adjacent to Countryside by the parking lot and fields, though, if accepted, the MSBA’s feasibility study process would have the project team investigate multiple options to find the best solution.

Gilman said the project is “probably six years out,” but it could change depending on the city’s capital plan and needs and whether or not the MSBA grants funding.

“We have a lot of needs,” Gilman said. “I know it’s a long process but I know that the MSBA is a good process and they’re a wonderful partner.”

The school expects to hear from the MSBA in May to July with a decision. If approved, the school would enter a 270-day “eligibility period” for the district to complete preliminary requirements such as forming a school building committee, she said.

According to its website, the MBSA board of directors distributes grants “based on need and urgency.” Goldman said this would be the third MSBA project for Newton, after Angier and Cabot Elementary Schools.

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Goldman said this is part of the larger schoolwide facilities plan to make up for the lack of investment in the 1980s when school population declined and Proposition 2 ½ was instituted.

“That’s 40 years of neglect,” she said. “You just don’t make up 40 years of neglect in a couple of years.”

David Fleishman, superintendent of Newton Public Schools, said Countryside typically serves about 400 students. He said the school’s insufficient space and “decrepit modulars” make a rebuild necessary.

“Countryside is a wonderful school that needs a lot of work,” Fleishman said. “That’s very clear to us.”

Fleishman said there are other schools that “need a lot of work, and it was just put on hold through the pandemic.”

“This is just the beginning of getting back to where we want to be,” Fleishman said.

He said the school system’s goals are to both maintain current buildings and “prepare for future generations of students.” He said the district will continue to work on other school projects as well.

“There will be other schools that will be rebuilt besides Countryside,” Fleishman said. “As soon as things get better, we will get right back to our plan to renovate and rebuild schools.”

Lily Kepner can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.