Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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

Inspectors were “literally hammering the walls” of Somerville’s Winter Hill Community Innovation School this summer when they discovered some of its concrete contained asbestos, Department of Infrastructure and Asset Management director Rich Raiche told officials at a Nov. 9 community meeting. 

The Winter Hill school closed in June after a piece of concrete fell from a stairwell ceiling. Now, officials expect Winter Hill students will stay at the Edgerly Building for at least five more years as the city works through its K-8 Master Plan. 

The city’s assessment of Winter Hill found the building was structurally sound, despite years of water damage, but contained a significant amount of hazardous materials – typical for 1970s buildings. “That’s what led us to close the building out of an abundance of caution,” Raiche said.

Students will not be returning any time soon.

“Based on overall assessments of the building and other significant repairs needed – some to restore areas damaged by invasive structural testing this summer – it would take significant time and funding to ready this building for students and staff next fall. As the city is seeking to either gut renovate or entirely rebuild to meet school and district needs, it is not appropriate to conduct a major project and move back in students and staff temporarily only to have to move them out again for a renovation or rebuild project. To provide our Winter Hill school community more stability and to make the best use of our resources, we are keeping Winter Hill at Edgerly, and Sycamore Street will remain closed as we develop longer-term building plans,” said Jackie Piques, chief communications and development officer for Somerville Public Schools.

the team found any airborne release of hazardous materials from the inspectors’ hammers this summer was insignificant. The surface-level asbestos was limited to covered areas of stairwells and some columns; none of the walls throughout the building contained asbestos on the surface.

That the tests found asbestos in portions of concrete is rare. After concluding there was no immediate threat, workers treated the site in accordance with state Department of Environmental Protection requirements to ensure it was safe. The city hired a third-party hygienist to ensure the work followed protocols and guidelines, Piques said.

Asbestos was also present at the Edgerly Building. The city knew that from an October 2021 study conducted before Somerville Public Schools administration moved into the building. But in August of this year, news arrived that the city found nonfriable asbestos in the window caulking. Experts said there was a low chance of a health risk, but summer programming was canceled. Again, the DEP and contractors were called to collect air samples. Tests were negative.

While the city prepares the Edgerly for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, it’s also moving through its K-8 master plan. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is further reviewing a statement of interest to redevelop the Winter Hill School. The city also applied to the authority for help with the Benjamin G. Brown School, a similarly outdated building, that has not moved forward, according to Melissa Woods, director of capital projects.

Members of the authority toured the Winter Hill school in September; rhe city expects a decision in December. Regardless of the decision, the city is able to pay for a feasibility study and schematic design, while MSBA funding would go toward a detailed design and construction.

Somerville needs the support of voters too, finance director Ed Bean said, as the project will require an override of Proposition 2½, which caps the amount of revenue municipalities can raise for operations. The city successfully overrode the proposition to build its high school, but that was a different time.

“I think we’re paying $6 million a year under the debt exclusion for the high school at that rate of 2.03 percent. What’s transpired here, as we all know, is interest rates have been going up dramatically in the economy. So we are not going to be able to borrow at that same low interest rate. Our financial advisers are telling us it’s going to be about 5 percent – that’s more than double the rate that we borrowed for the new high school building. So this is significant and we need to plan this thing out appropriately,” Bean said.

Before construction cost is the question of what to build and where. The city is still undecided on whether the Winter Hill school will be redeveloped at its Sycamore Street location or elsewhere. The city is analyzing an enrollment study that will help inform the districtwide need for space and programming.

Somerville’s K-8 Master Plan is excepted to be presented Dec. 5, but meeting details have not been released.

The master plan will balance the needs of the Winter Hill school and the district as a whole, schools superintendent Ruben Carmona said, with an eye on maximizing the return on investment. “We need to provide a thoughtful and very articulate plan for the community,” Carmona said.

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.

This post was updated Nov. 22, 2023, with corrections from Somerville Public Schools communications director Jackie Piques to the Somerville Wire. When director of infrastructure and assets management Rich Raiche said the city decided to close the Winter Hill building after discovering asbestos, he meant closing the building to staff and inspectors in August. He was not referring to the estimated five-year closing of the building to students, which was decided in light of the planned construction and/or demolition of the Sycamore Street building. Additionally, workers who tended to the Winter Hill building after asbestos were not from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, but contractors and a third-party hygienist who carried out work in accordance with DEP regulations. The asbestos in the window caulking of the Edgerly was not discovered during the summer, as this article originally stated. It was identified in an October 2021 study Raiche mentioned was conducted before SPS moved in. The work to treat the asbestos was more disruptive to students than expected, causing summer programming to end three days early.