By James Niedzinski
---- — MANCHESTER — Officials from both Manchester and Essex past and present, along with residents within the Manchester Essex Regional School District, asked questions and heard some answers this week regarding a facilities review and the future of the district’s two elementary schools.
The review this week was designed to outline the issues around the aging Manchester Memorial Elementary School and neighboring Essex Elementary School.
The regional School Committee will be putting together a task force to help give input and guidance on which of the three options best fits the district.
Those options include building a single, regional elementary school in one of the towns; renovating and adding to both the Manchester and Essex elementary schools, or adding to both schools, but using Essex to house students from pre-kindergarten through second grade students, while Manchester Memorial would serve those in Grades 3-5.
The task force will include School Committee members Jim Haskell and Caroline Weld, who sit on the facilities subcommittee, one member of the Board of Selectmen from each town, one member of the Finance Committee from each town, one preschool parent from each town, two parents are large from each town, one resident from each town with school officials and principles advising.
“This is not a building committee, to be totally clear,” School Committee chairman Linda Crosby said during Tuesday’s meeting.
During his presentation on the current schools, Steven Habeeb of Habeeb & Associates Architects pointed out the decrepit state of the schools.
“The buildings are well-maintained from a cleanliness perspective, but they are aging, and they do need work,” he said.
Manchester Memorial was constructed in 1950 and currently holds 465 students while Essex Elementary School was built in 1958 and serves 272.
From illegal, out-of-sync urinals and new boilers to handicapped accessibility and new windows, Manchester is facing a total of $7,579,614 in priority repairs while Essex’s price tag is $4,290,205, Habeeb indicated.
Habeeb and school officials fielded questions from residents and town officials.
In nearly every instance, Habeeb said, a district is only allowed one project at a time from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. In regional districts that are facing multiple facility issues such as Manchester Essex, Habeeb said variances to get both projects going at the same time is a thing of the past.
“They have been pretty adamant about one district, one project,” he said, meaning one project must be completed and finished before another can begin.
If the towns decide to move in this direction, the school with the most needs — most likely Manchester — would get MSBA approval first, Habeeb said.
Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin said from her experience, she has seen other districts pursue the unified school rather than neighborhood schools, and that process tends to get going faster.
One aspect of adding and renovating the two schools would be increased energy usage, Habeeb said much further down the road, a new school would prove less costly. In addition, rebuilding and additions would have an impact on the students, who would be force to learn around sometimes disruptive construction crews.
One of the first steps in this process is determining whether or not neighborhood schools are still a good fit for the district. When it comes to busing kids from one town to the other, Beaudoin said the cost is almost a wash, with little impact on the overall cost.
Current selectmen and former School Committee chair Susan Coviello noted Essex students are already going to middle and high school in Manchester.
“It’s not an impossible thing to think about,” she said,
Another one of the concerns is the price for each option.
Habeeb said the option to renovate and rebuild the schools as they are now would cost $40,166,806, to have one in Essex housing younger students and Manchester older students would cost a bit more at $40,190,366 and a new school would cost $47,040,000. That price includes roughly $6 million for purchasing land, Habeeb said.
Coviello noted the MSBA would not reimburse the district for purchasing land.
The unified school option comes with other steps as well. For one thing, the district’s regional agreement would have to be reorganized; as it stands now each town is required to have its own elementary school.
Another factor is enrollment rates, Habeeb said generally, the MSBA wants districts to plan for the long term, not asking for an addition because of an influx of students a few years down the road.
Habeeb’s report states that, considering future enrollment rates, Manchester will need about 11 or 12 more rooms, while Essex needs around six.
“These shortages of classrooms take into account special need and special support (classrooms),” he said. “It does not mean you are short on those classrooms immediately, but it will happen in the future.”
The discussion also shifted toward what gets done with the old elementary schools, Coviello noted Essex has been gathering information on a new public safety building and Town Hall. But, considering all the factors, school officials are still looking for more input.
To take a survey on what you think of the options are how the schools are now, visit the district site at mersd.org. To get involved with the task force, email Beuadoin at beaudoinp@mersd,org, Haskell at firstname.lastname@example.org or Weld at email@example.com.
Officials also have a number of public forums planned in coming weeks.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.