Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Martin Luther King Jr. School on Putnam Avenue may be demolished late this year and rebuilt for a September 2015 reopening.

The first step in borrowing $81.5 million to rebuild the Martin Luther King Jr. School was taken Monday by the City Council. The second reading of the request is due in September, but before a final vote councillors Craig Kelley and Minka vanBeuzekom are asking for an independent review of the facts supporting a complete rebuild instead of a renovation.

The request is strongly opposed by City Manager Robert W. Healy.

“A second opinion would merely delay this project and cost more money, and that’s not going to happen,” Healy told vanBeuzekom when she made her separate request for independent analysis. “We would have to do designer selection to get a second opinion, and that is a four-month process in itself that that puts it beyond [the school opening date of] September 2015… There is not time to do a second opinion, and I don’t know what we’d get a second opinion on, to be honest with you.”

If the project is approved in September, when regular council meetings begin again, demolition at the 750-student King School, 100 Putnam Ave., would be on schedule to begin late this year; construction would start in 2014 and run through August 2015; and the new elementary and upper school would open September 2015.

The next schools to be rebuilt, each with one year of design and two years of construction, would be the King Open School, 850 Cambridge St., and Tobin School, 197 Vassal Lane. Healy said state money would be sought to help pay for each, while the city would pay for the King School on its own. Seeking state money for the first building would have delayed the project by perhaps a year, he said, and the city with its top-notch financial profile from bond rating agencies and resulting low interest rates can handle easily the debt load from — with the millions already granted for design to start — an $84.5 million project. (Or a total $103 million over the 20-year life of the loans.)

“This is only authorization. We don’t borrow money unless we need it,” Healy said.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young and five of the six members of the School Committee (Mervan Osborne was absent) visited the council to speak in favor of the project — even Patty Nolan, who had been a skeptic about the expense of the project and whether a complete tear-down was cost effective or environmentally sound. It is a large amount, she said Monday, “and other communities have done more with less, but the question is really have we done our due diligence?”

But citizens who remained skeptics felt the reports supporting tearing down the school and building anew were lacking key details and needed more review, including peer review, and several mentioned “rushing” through the process, which began in April, saw design options in May and identified a preferred design option in June.

With the parade of committee members and concerned parents — including many architects — giving alternating opinions, “I felt like I was at a ping-pong match,” Kelley said. “I don’t see the downside to moving forward on this while also seeking another opinion.”

But Kelley’s letter says that second opinion could come from simply granting access to all city documents explaining the reasons behind the compete rebuild. “What I have found in talking to people is they ask me about various architectural or environmental or education aspects of the building, and I can’t answer their questions and they’re telling me their questions can’t be answered by any of the documents thus far publicly available,” he said during the council meeting.

Mention of that option may be why Kelley’s request drew no response from Healy, while vanBeuzekom’s request and suggestion that a second opinion was “part of our due diligence for a project of this magnitude” drew a sharp response. He answered her point for point, including saying that when she got a feasibility study now in final draft form she would see that the options had been “very carefully looked at”:

This is as thoughtful a project as has been done … the option that would be considered a partial renovation would also involve significant demolition and is relatively the same cost for a lot less programmatic advantages. This is not something we do lightly in the city administration. We’ve been working hard on this for 15, 18 months. You will have a feasibility study, but this project will stand on its own very good merit for September final ordination.

But when she reminded him that at a joint council-School Committee meeting June 25 he’d promised documentation “well before” the July meeting, he was silent beyond saying he hoped to provide the documents “as soon as within the next two weeks.”

The School Committee holds its only regular meeting of the summer from 6 to 8 tonight in its meeting room, 459 Broadway.