Tewksbury Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Regan and Business Manager David Libby, along with School Committee Chair Bridget Garabedian, addressed the North and Trahan School Reuse Committee last night. The main topic of discussion: whether there is a need to hold the North St. or Trahan property for a new elementary school in the future.
Regan provided some history of other school building projects, saying that the town’s four elementary schools were actually more in need of replacement than the high school, but that TMHS was prioritized because the condition of the building threatened accreditation. Next, the town undertook the grades 2, 3 and 4 elementary school that’s set to be completed in January, with funding from the Mass. School Building Authority.
“MSBA told us, ‘The minute this school is complete, come back to the table,’” said Regan. “They understood the need.”
Getting a new school built is about a six-year process. Given that, Regan said she sees no reason the School Committee would not turn over both properties to the town.
Committee Chair Bruce Shick asked about available funding to take down one or both buildings. Libby addressed the contingency funds that remain in the new Center Elementary School budget but cautioned that the school is not yet complete, so some of that money could still be spent on punch list items.
As of the last Elementary School Building Committee meeting, only 12% of the town’s owner contingency, or the amount set aside for scope modifications and additions, had been used, leaving about $1.63 million. The construction contingency, or the amount built into the contractor’s anticipated price for the project, has 40% remaining, about $1.06 million.
Regan also cautioned that town counsel should weigh in on whether these funds may be used for something other than the current project, saying she doesn’t believe that there is a line item for removal of the North St. or Trahan school.
Regan said North St. is the more desirable of the two properties for a new, combined lower elementary school, based on its central location.
There were no resident comments.
The Committee was able to delve into more detail on the recent survey results. About 300 people out of close to 900 respondents asked to be notified of the upcoming public information meeting, which will be held next Thursday evening from 6:30 – 8 p.m. at TMHS.
Chair Bruce Shick shared word clouds of the open response questions on what residents do not want to see at the sites. The results are consistent with how respondents answered the structured questions: No to housing, no to business, yes to parks and open space. A clear majority, 65%, want the town to hold on to the properties for future use.
In closing, members offered their initial thoughts on a recommendation, given the currently available information.
Update: The estimated cost to take down both buildings is $4.6 million.
“I know people want open space, but my concern is, where is the funding?” said member Mark Kratman. “It’s really going to come down to, what are the residents willing to pay for?”
”I don’t think it’s this committee’s job to find the funds,” said member Kayla Biagioni-Smith.
Shick pointed out that open space “costs close to nothing” and that Community Preservation Funds and grants are available.
“It really doesn’t take long for an empty lot to become open space as the trees grow,” said Shick, who also pointed out that affordable housing is a priority for the town. “If we reserved the back side of the Trahan for small units, deed restricted, that’s one way to solve the housing problem,” he said, suggesting tiny houses or accessory dwelling units of 600 to 800 square feet that would bolster the town’s affordable housing stock.
Members Kristen Smith, Jeff Elwell and Biagioni-Smith shared that their initial recommendations would be to demolish the buildings as soon as possible and maintain the properties as open space, with a boardwalk to the Frasca Soccer Complex from North St. and recreation space at the Trahan.
“There’s not really anything on that side of town,” said Elwell of the South Tewksbury property.
Kratman agreed, but shared that he would be open to using “a small portion” of the Trahan site to build something to bring in revenue, such as affordable senior housing, which would have less traffic impact than family housing.
Member John Deputat, who chairs the Tewksbury Housing Authority, called out the complexity of the town constructing housing versus private developers.
“The Housing Authority is not in the business of being landlords,” Deputat said. “It’s not easy.”
Shick’s initial recommendation is that both schools come down and that North St. is left relatively undeveloped, potentially with a low-cost option, such as a pickleball court, and with the boardwalk paid for by Open Space or CPA funds.
“The Trahan, which happens to be my neighborhood, should be mostly park but with some small-scale housing,” said Shick. “Leave the possibility open.”