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Proposed new Waltham High School could cost $283 million or more

WALTHAM — It’s not quite a regional rivalry, but Waltham may push aside Newton, and probably Somerville, for the honor of building the state’s most expensive high school.

City officials are proposing to renovate or replace the existing Waltham High School at a cost of $283 million or more. They said the project is needed to address surging student enrollment and the high school’s aging facilities.

Members of a Waltham school building committee are expected to vote Monday on a location for the project. Options under consideration are to build at the former Fernald Developmental Center property off Trapelo Road; erect an entirely new building on the current high school site on Lexington Street; or renovate one wing of the existing high school that would be connected to a new building.

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Building on the existing high school site could cost $283.5 million, while building on Fernald — home to a now-shuttered facility that once housed residents with developmental disabilities — could cost $299.6 million, according to the city. Waltham has been invited into the state’s school construction grant program and hopes to be reimbursed for about 55 percent of eligible project costs.

The Waltham project would exceed the nearly $200 million spent on Newton North High School, which became the state’s most expensive high school when it opened in 2010.

It would also be more than the $257 million plan to rebuild Somerville High School. On Tuesday, Somerville residents approved a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, to fund $130.3 million toward the project.

Each of the three Waltham High School plans includes provisions for a 418,000-square-foot high school designed for 1,830 students, Superintendent Drew Echelson said, replacing an existing building with 318,000 square feet of space and an enrollment of about 1,600 students.

Built in 1968, Waltham High has outdated science labs and vocational education facilities and inadequate technology, and doesn’t allow for expanded educational offerings, city officials said.

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It does offer vocational education programs, including automotive technology and culinary arts, along with traditional academics. But an educational plan for the new building proposes adding more vocational offerings, such as plumbing and cosmetology.

Waltham is not a member of the Minuteman High School, a regional vocational school based in Lexington. In September, voters in the district’s member towns approved a project to build a new Minuteman building in Lincoln for $145 million.

If a site is picked Monday for Waltham’s high school plan, the city’s School Committee will hold a series of discussions on the project beginning Nov. 16.

Officials hope a finished Waltham High School project would be opened to students in fall 2021, Echelson said.

State officials estimated last year that kindergarten to grade 12 enrollment in Waltham would grow by more than 18 percent, from 5,215 students to 6,390 students, by 2024.

Echelson said the district will need additional classroom space for the lower grades, and officials are considering the Fernald property because it would allow a new school there, and retain the old high school building for future use.

But choosing Fernald for the home of a future high school could trigger a search for an unmarked cemetery, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The Waltham institution, which housed 2,600 residents at its peak in the 1960s, received national attention with its history of abuses and the messy court fights surrounding the center’s closing. The last residents left in 2014.

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The city bought the property for $3.7 million that year, using city funds and Community Preservation Act money.

Fernald was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1994, and the high school proposal for Fernald would mean knocking down some of the buildings.

Echelson said a high school at Fernald would have a memorial room devoted to the history of the property. “I can’t think of a better use of this site than a school that serves all students and is inclusive and changes the paradigm [of the history] of the Fernald site,” said Echelson.

Clarence Richardson Jr., chairman of the city’s local historic commission, said the use of Community Preservation Act money to buy the bulk of the Fernald land limits development to options that preserve open space.

The 50-acre section city officials are considering for a new high school does not have that restriction, since the city used other funds to buy it, he said.

But proposing to use that land for a school has raised concerns from state officials about the possibility of an unmarked cemetery being disturbed.

Last Friday, the state agency said in a letter to Echelson that if the city chooses the Fernald site, an archeological survey must be conducted to determine whether a cemetery is near the proposed construction site.

The state commission has previously called on the city to explore alternatives for a new high school that “would not impact historic resources.”

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Richardson said Fernald should be preserved because of its history and architecture, some of which was built by residents at the facility.

“Once you knock it down, no one will remember what was there,” said Richardson. “Lesson plans change and things are forgotten, and I don’t want to see this forgotten.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com or @draillih.