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Middleborough

High school aid request back in play

As a new funding cycle begins, Middleborough will again ask the state for help to repair or replace its crumbling high school, hoping that after six straight years of rejections, lucky seven might be the charm.

School officials have repeatedly made the case to join the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s construction reimbursement program to access the funding assistance needed to overhaul Middleborough High School.

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But while the leaky, East Grove Street campus continues to be short on classrooms, science labs, and technology — and long on climate control and other problems — the answer has always been no.

The school building authority’s executive director, Jack McCarthy, lowered the boom on the town’s most recent application in a December letter to School Superintendent Roseli Weiss in which he said that her request was among 201 inquiries from 117 school districts for fiscal 2013, and that it didn’t make the cut.

Down but not out, Middleborough’s selectmen on Monday gave the district’s business manager, Kathy Piatelli, permission to submit four new letters of interest to the state agency: one that again centers on the high school and the others seeking funds to replace boilers, windows, and roofs at the Mary K. Good Elementary School, Nichols Middle School, and the Early Childhood Education Center.

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The town of 23,000 has 3,455 students in total, with about 850 of them attending the high school, according to state statistics.

Piatelli said the School Committee supports the new requests. “We will just keep trying,’’ she told selectmen before their unanimous vote. “If we are ever determined to be needy enough, they will come here to suggest ways to add on, renovate, or replace.”

Outside the meeting room, Piatelli said the string of rejections by the state feels like the district is “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

Teresa Farley, a local mother of three, agrees. She said she moved to Middleborough with the specific intention of enrolling her children in its public schools, despite the high school’s decline.

“I am frustrated and angry that someone from the state who probably never stepped one foot into our high school building could put a rubber stamp of rejection on something that means so much to our community,’’ Farley said.

She challenged state officials to take a walk through the high school, have conversations with students and staff, and then make a decision based on need.

“It shouldn’t have to always be about the bottom line,’’ she said.

Dan Collins, spokesman for the school building authority, said funding for the school construction program comes from 1 percent of the state’s sales tax revenues, and that, in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the program distributed $1 billion in grants and funds to school districts statewide to pay down debt. The limited funding must be distributed equitably and Middleborough’s rejection is really nothing personal, he said.

“Every district that applies is presenting a need that they perceive as very high,’’ Collins said. “Our role is to identify the facilities with the greatest and most urgent needs. And we do have to say no to some districts.”

Of the total requests in 2013, just 14 projects involving “core” improvements — in other words, more extensive repairs or renovations, additions or new school construction — were invited into the program for funding consideration, according to a list provided by the school building authority.

State Representative Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican who represents Middleborough, said she has worked with school officials and other area lawmakers in a bipartisan effort to get the state’s ear.

“We have all worked together to try to emphasize the need, and of course, we are disappointed,’’ she said. “What we are hearing is there is no problem with the application, just a finite amount of funds.”

Selectman Allin Frawley agrees there’s a need for a better high school, but says it could be a hard sell when the town has other pressing needs. Voters at a May Town Meeting, for example, will be asked to decide whether to approve a police station renovation and addition expected to cost at least $12 million.

“I sincerely hope at least one of my kids gets to attend a new high school in Middleborough,’’ said Frawley, the father of two children, age 3 and 1.

Last spring, high school administrators, including principal Paul Branagan, traveled to newly constructed schools, including one in Hanover, and marveled at the disparity, compared with Middleborough’s circumstance.

Branagan and others said they want Middleborough students to have an equal opportunity to learn in a modern school with the tools they need for success.

Currently, the high school is a tight squeeze, with three classrooms converted into computer labs, and another eight now housing specialized instruction, from special education to an alternative high school program.

That forces some teachers to have to float with their belongings from one room to another, officials said. Art is taught in a science room, and other classes are bulging at the seams with well over 30 students.

Superintendent Weiss, who could not be reached for comment for this story, has said in the past that the district is being “held captive” by the high school building, and that the town wants an improved environment, not “the Taj Mahal.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.
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