Sunday, June 16, 2024

Somerville’s Winter Hill School, seen in September 2016. (Photo: City Year via Flickr)

There will be no construction or major renovations to any Somerville school buildings until late 2026 at the earliest, the city’s director of infrastructure and asset management Richard Raiche said Monday, despite concerns about aging infrastructure on buildings dating back to 1900.

The School Building Facilities and Maintenance Special Committee met Monday to hear updates regarding a $550,000 design study to evaluate Somerville’s school buildings and create a building master plan.

School Committee members and city councilors have expressed a desire for more transparency and more frequent updates surrounding the process.

“We want as much information and clarification on the process as we can [have],” chair Beatriz Mouakad said during the meeting. “There’s a lot of passion about the school buildings, which I share with the general public.”

The new Somerville High School that opened March 4 has an estimated price tag of $256 million, of which the city is paying $136 million. Construction started in 2018.

Elsewhere in the district, Somerville is struggling with the deterioration of aging school buildings after years of deferred maintenance.

In 2015, the roof of Brown School collapsed, canceling classes for a day and displacing students while repairs were made. The Winter Hill School building shows “evidence of deferred and under-executed maintenance, including mechanical part failure,” according to a statement of interest submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Commissioner Jill Lathan of Somerville’s Department of Public Works acknowledged the challenges.

“Right now, because of our aging infrastructure, we’re chasing the caboose,” Lathan said. “And sometimes we catch it and hop on and sometimes we fall on our face and get run over by the next train behind us.”

Building master plan, Phase 1

The first phase of a building master plan begun in the fall of 2022 and expected to be done this spring includes completion of an enrollment study and a building capacity study, Raiche said. Somerville Public Schools completed the enrollment study March 24; it projects a 5 percent decrease in student enrollment by 2032.

A Capital Projects Division’ building capacity study seeks to understand the state of Somerville school buildings. The division has completed a review of those constructed after 1990, finding them in good condition structurally but with mechanical equipment nearing the end of its life, Raiche said.

Another component of this first phase: assessing the condition of the Brown and Winter Hill schools, built in 1900 and 1970, respectively.

The assessment of the Brown School is complete. “The good news is that the foundation and structure are all excellent. It is simply an old building and it can be renovated,” Raiche said.

The Winter Hill condition assessment began in April and will likely be ready for review in June, Raiche said.

Building master plan, Phase 2

During the second phase of the design study, projected to take place this summer to winter, the city will complete a gap analysis describing the district’s space needs and assessing whether it is possible to fulfill these needs given Somerville’s existing building portfolio, Raiche said.

Somerville will likely need more classroom space than the building portfolio supports, Raiche said. Part of this process will be figuring out exactly how much.

The district’s space needs include swing space where students can learn while their school building is under construction.

Future phases

The third phase of the study is projected to take place from 2024 to 2025 and includes the completion of a feasibility study and the engagement of the wider community.

During this phase, the city would create a formal building committee with representatives from the School Committee, school district and schools, City Council and Public Works, Raiches said.

A design process would take place between 2025 and 2026, Raiche said. There is no timeline for any construction that followed, which is funding dependent, according to Monday’s presentation.

Winter Hill School frustration

This meeting comes about a month and a half after teachers, parents and School Committee members expressed frustration with the lack of progress on a plan to renovate or replace the Winter Hill School building.

In response to testimony, city official submitted two statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a state agency that offers competitive grants to support school construction and renovation projects.

The statements of interest requested funding for the replacement or renovation of the two Somerville schools built before 1990 – the Winter Hill and the Brown.

“How do we manage?”

School Committee member Laura Pitone pushed back on the sequential nature of the timeline, suggesting more could happen in parallel. Raiche said the process was developed over a year ago with the Somerville Public Schools, but did not specify if phases could happen simultaneously.

If Somerville needs to wait until 2026 for construction to begin, Pitone said, the city has to discuss what happens in the meantime.

“How do we manage these buildings for the next three to four years?” Pitone asked.