West

Renovate or rebuild? Arlington imagines the future of its high school

Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff
The original columned facade of Arlington High School was built in 1938.

ARLINGTON — “I despise the auditorium seats, and if it cost $1 million to replace them, I could do it myself,” one participant declared. “If we could just move the soccer field. . . ” another began when someone floated the idea of a parking garage for teachers. Still another said what he didn’t want: “Not this monstrosity we have now.”

For all, the conclusion was the same: Big changes should come to Arlington High School.

Around 100 community members attended a brainstorming session at Town Hall on Jan. 10 to begin the process of repairing or replacing the aging school.

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“We really are just starting,” said Lori Cowles of HMFH Architects, the firm contracted to design the project. “Myself and all the engineers, we’ve been traipsing around the high school for the last few weeks into closets and things that people didn’t even know were there. It’s been very educational.”

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Arlington High School, which US News and World Report rated as one of the best in the state, hasn’t seen any significant building work since 1981, according to a website for the project. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges cited falling ceiling tiles, unclean conditions, and an insufficient size and number of classrooms, among other factors in a 2013 review that dropped the school’s accreditation to “warning” status.

While enrollment is substantially increasing in the district, the most pressing problems lie with the building itself, according to Superintendent Kathleen Bodie.

“Oh my goodness where do I begin?” she said when asked about them. “Every single system — plumbing, heat, electrical — needs updating. In the same building you can be overheated in one room and cold in another.”

Neighboring communities of Belmont, Waltham, and Somerville are in various stages of planning high school projects. Winchester finished a major renovation last fall.

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Arlington is partnering with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, HMFH Architects, and project manager Skanska USA to create a plan for overhauling the facility. But whether the school will be replaced, renovated, or expanded has yet to be decided.

In the first of four public forums on the project, community members — with only two students in attendance — were prompted in small group discussions to consider what needs to change at the high school.

Energy inefficiency and a confusing layout (including entering the building on the third floor) were among the complaints aired about the current facility.

One parent said that a lack of common spaces for students to mingle might be contributing to “cultural schisms” she noticed between student social groups. And the majority seemed to agree that “flexible spaces” able to adapt to the technological and educational changes to come would be the best investment.

Others lobbied to preserve the original columned façade, built in 1938. With its central location and wide community use, they said, the building is something of a landmark.

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And many wondered what would happen to students and community groups when construction begins.

‘The ultimate project budget will likely be a larger number than frankly any project that’s ever been done in the town before.’

Composed of several wings built since 1914, the school serves roughly 1,360 high schoolers. But it also houses preschool, day care, and adult education programs, some town government offices, and one of only two large public auditoriums in town, according to the website for the project.

“What’s interesting about this building is that it’s very, very large. But a huge portion of it is purely circulation,” such as hallways and stairwells, Cowles said in a presentation.

“Even though the square footage is there — it’s probably more than you need when you think about it from just that point of view — what’s happening in that building . . . really limits how much is actual functioning educational space.”

Yet the biggest question of all might be how to pay for the work.

Only near the end of the meeting as part of a Q&A about the project did the question come to the fore: “What is the budget for this?”

Three presenters hesitated in their reply before Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine jumped up from the audience to take the microphone and “rip the Band-Aid off.”

“So, there is no budget for the school right now,” he said, noting that the cost will be determined once the best plan for the school is selected. It will likely come before voters in a spring 2019 referendum.

But, Chapdelaine said, “the ultimate project budget will likely be alarger number than frankly any project that’s ever been done in the town before.”

For Superintendent Bodie, getting support for what she said will definitely require a debt exclusion of Proposition 2½ is the true test ahead. “The biggest challenge will be to have the community support the funding for the school, and that’s why we want people to feel very much a part of the process,” she explained in a phone interview.

“We want people’s input so at the end of the end of the day they feel as if it’s their school.”

Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.