Planning begins for new North Dorchester High School

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The Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
The Feb. 9 meeting of community members offered insight and information into the process of creating a new North Dorchester High School. Audience members were asked to recommend creative solutions to designing spaces to accommodate a projected enrollment of 650 students.

HURLOCK — Attendees at the second Community Input meeting held Feb. 9 to discuss a new North Dorchester High School (NDHS) felt strongly that the old school needs to be replaced. The recent meeting, led by school superintendent Dr. Henry Wagner, asked attendees to help design the new school.

The process is long and complex. The County Department Of Education relies heavily on the architects and the system’s administration to direct procedures. They do their best to update constituents and the Feb. 9 meeting was no exception. The project’s Steering Committee includes a diverse group including: Community members, parents, law enforcement, teachers, administrators, school construction personnel, and members of the county school system central office staff. Architects Hord, Coplan, and Macht are helping to wade through the “educational specifications” process.

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The Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
Dorchester County School Superintendent Dr. Henry Wagner addresses the nearly 100 audience members at the Feb. 9 second Community Input meeting to discuss a new North Dorchester High School.

Dr. Wagner noted, “This project is very important to our community. We’re at a critical phase with respect to moving forward. Last year we conducted a feasibility study and among the questions we raised was ‘Do we need a new building or can we get by renovating what we have and what would be the most cost efficient option.’ Overwhelmingly, it would not be cost effective – throwing good money after bad – to try to retrieve the systems we need for a 21st century school with these four or five buildings that were built in the 1950s.”

He added, “We have to convince our fiscal leaders that this is an investment that is long overdue.” This year the Steering Committee will create the educational specifications including functionality, adjacencies, design, number of stories, etc. “You (audience) are going to help by specifying what this new building needs to be,” the superintendent said.

The decision to construct the new high school followed a lengthy review process. Peter Winebrenner with Hord, Coplan, and Macht worked with Dwayne Abt, assistant superintendent for administration and School Facilities Engineer Chris Hague to assess the existing building and review options for creating a high school that meets the needs of this population in this day and age. “We look at state criteria” to determine the size that should be built or maintained for this population.

After reviewing alternatives including renovation, partial replacement, and full replacement; and, factoring in construction, life cycle costs of maintenance and operation, etc., building new was cheaper and resulted in the best educational solutions and best use of local and state dollars.

According to Mr. Abt, the school system “cannot afford to maintain this facility with the resources that we have without drastic financial change. Just to keep operational we would have millions of dollars of roof replacement; $5-10 million of HVAC work. When you look at all together the cost would be more efficient to build new.” Other concerns included “moisture intrusion” and school safety.

Dr. Wagner added that, “Typically our maintenance requests (to the County Council) are DOA. That’s part of the issue.”

Mr. Winebrenner said the committee is “about halfway through the development of the specifications.” The Steering Committee and attendees at the first Community Input meeting in December submitted their hopes and dreams for a new school. Both groups’ suggestions were “meshed” and formed the project’s Guiding Principles.

A new school will: Be a multi-purpose tool supporting community use; fully incorporate the use of technology; be safe and secure; engage and respect all learners; be flexible, adaptable, resilient, and expandable; have improved athletic programs and facilities; be energy efficient; be sustainable; and fully use the entire site and campus for learning.

The group activity for Update #2 attendees was using colored blocks to design suggested components for a new school. “We have to think differently about our learning environments,” said Mr. Winebrenner. “One size doesn’t fit all.” Using a projected enrollment of 650, the new space would be about 116,000 sq. feet. The current space is a little less than 100,000 sq. feet. “That number must be broken down into various components and those are broken down into rooms. Tonight we want you to help us design the new school,” he explained.

Eight different colored blocks, to scale with each other, were manipulated to fit on the existing footprint. They included: Core academics; learning commons; specialized needs; visual and performance arts; physical education and athletics; dining; administration; and a community health center.

Mr. Winebrenner said to remember that with nowhere to put current students while building the new school the existing school must continue to function. Otherwise there were no rules. Divided into groups, the participants concentrated on the dozen or so boards and blocks that represented the existing campus.

Construction is anticipated to last from the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2018.

“But all of this effort stops dead in its tracks if we don’t get planning money from the County Council for FY2016,” said Dr. Wagner. “It’s going to cost $2.5 to $3 million (for planning),” said Dr. Wagner. “Now we’re talking about a commitment from our county’s leaders.” Speaking to the attendees, he said, “We need your support to get that commitment. The state will not give us a penny until we have designed a new school. Once we design it, for every dollar, 76¢ will come from the state and 24¢ from the county. We have to get over that design phase hump and get the ball rolling on a commitment.” He explained there is no good year to incur debt but suggested the county cannot wait for an ideal year. He said it is “time for North Dorchester to get its new school. The superintendant called the meeting “an advocacy enterprise – a persuasion effort, and noted he anticipates a “good dialogue” with “our fiscal authorities” to discuss the “economically negotiable items.”

A major question, unaddressed at Update #2, was how to pay the county’s estimated construction share of approximately $23 million.

In an interview with The Banner, Finance Director Mike Spears explained that construction cost projections call for state and local input that would leave the county with a balance due of between $20-$23 million. He estimated that paying the interest and principal on a 20-year bond would add $2 million yearly to the county budget. He pointed out there are two ways to fund the debt: Reduce spending or increase taxes, or a combination of each approach. Whatever way is chosen the debt “must fit into our budget,” he said, and follows many years of “lean operations.”

The biggest part of the county budget is the school system. No cuts are possible because the county must follow state “maintenance of effort” regulations. Unless programs are completely eliminated, he says there is no way to fix the problem simply by cutting expenditures. Increasing revenues by 7¢ on property tax rates would allow the county to meet its new school bond debt obligations.

Mr. Spears explained that rates differ for Cambridge, Hurlock, and the county. By increasing the rate for each area by 7¢, the average yearly tax increase for a property owner would be: Cambridge, $68; Hurlock, $91; and the county, $101. The average was calculated using the taxable base divided by the number of accounts.

“We need a balance,” added Mr. Spears. “We all want low taxation” and we want a community we can enjoy that supplies what we need.

County Council President Ricky Travers told The Banner “We’ve had discussions and we are aware of their (school) needs. But we have to look at all of the county’s needs and figure out a creative solution for funding.” President Travers explained it is his understanding that the 24 percent construction costs to be borne by the county do not include design, furniture, or equipment which the county must also pay for.

“We only have ‘X’ amount of dollars to spend. The counties are hamstrung,” he said. There are only two income sources – property and income taxes. As property assessments decline, income derived from property taxes also declines. “It takes more to do what needs to be done.” The issue will be part of FY2016 budget discussions over the next few months prior to a May vote. “We are trying to look at it with a sympathetic eye.”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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