Pittsfield School Building Panel Opts for New High School

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Carl Franceschi goes over the Taconic High School options prior to the School Building Needs Commission voting for a new school on Monday night.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield will submit the option for a constructing a new $120 million Taconic High School to the Massachusetts School Building Authority next week.

The School Building Needs Commission on Monday voted 16-1 for the new construction option after more than an hour of discussion — and years of debate.

Ballpark figures for a new school range from $114 million to $125 million, including so-called soft costs ranging from contingencies to furniture.

The city will submit the option to the MSBA on Aug. 7 along with responses to comments on previously submitted educational and space plans.

"I just want to thank everybody, this is a milestone for the city of Pittsfield," said commission Chairwoman Kathleen Amuso.

The choice of building new rather than one of the two other options to renovate and add on to the 50-year-old school school did not come as a surprise.

Designers Drumney Rosane & Anderson Architects Inc. had recommended the option as an obvious choice based on criteria from the commission and feedback from public meetings. Both had shown that appropriate space for educational programs, efficiency and safety and security outweighed project cost.

"From that assessment ... it's clear that new construction makes the most sense for Pittsfield," said Carl Franceschi of DRA, describing it as "the best value for Pittsfield" when taking into account the matrix developed by DRA from the commission's priorities.

Franceschi went over the options again with estimates and answered questions as commissioners debated the proposals.

A base line option of essentially doing nothing but general maintenance and equipment replacement — but no further educational investment — was estimated to cost up to $36.2 million over the next five to 10 years.

The first option of renovating the 240,000 square foot school and adding 30,000 square feet on the west end and revamping the entrance was estimated at $89 million to $98 million.

The second option — renovating the current building and adding on another 80,000 square feet — came in higher than expected at a total cost of $114 million to $124 million.

The third, preferred option was to build new next to the old school at about the same pricetag, $114 million to $125 million.

The school would house 920 students, an enrollment figure calculated by the district and agreed on by the MSBA.

Commissioners were concerned about losing the current gymnasium, about 2,000 square feet larger than state standards, the actual amount of reimbursement and locking down final figures.

Franceschi held out the possibility that the MSBA could allow the new gym to be built to the current 14,000 square feet or build around the existing one, but said it wasn't a conversation MSBA was ready to have at this point.

"They didn't want it to affect your choice at this point," he said. "That's one of the leaps of faith we'll have to take in choosing an option."

The same concern was expressed about the cafeteria because state standards set the size at housing one-third the enrollment; Taconic has two lunches, rather than three, because of its scheduling.

"It's really problematic for a lot of schools," Franceschi said, adding this and the possibility for a smaller size for the auditorium would have to be worked out with MSBA.

Commissioner Melissa Mazzeo, however, was more concerned with discussions about the predicted 80 percent state reimbursement for the school actually falling short.

Pittsfield is eligible for a reimbursement rate just over 78 percent with the expectation it will achieve points to bring it up to 80 percent. But that's just for eligible items: Site work, for example, is only reimbursed for 8 percent of the building cost.

Franceschi said no schools actually get the full reimbursement because of the way the costs are calculated. Average construction is running about $350 per square foot but MSBA only just jumped its reimbursement rate for construction costs $12, to $287.

"It may match their data for projects that have already been built. ... but it doesn't account for inflation," he said.

Mazzeo said she was "a little nervous" about picking an option that night, preferring to wait for better numbers.

"We've been telling the public for years and years 'don't worry about it, it's going to be an 80 percent reimbursement,' " she said. "They want to know how much is coming out of their pocketbook."

Amuso said the commission has in the past discussed that aspect. Franceschi said the figures would become more solid as the design moved forward and the exact reimbursement would be spelled out when the city and state signed the contract to begin construction.

Commissioners Ellen Kennedy and William Travis pointed out that the difference between doing nothing and building new was $8 million to $10 million.

At the high end of the cost estimate, and the low end of actual reimbursement, the city would be on the hook for about $43 million to $44 million, compared to "doing nothing" at $36 million. If it comes closer to 78 percent, the cost would be around $27.5 million.

"Doing nothing would be disastrous," said Mayor Daniel Bianchi.

Commissioner Ozias "Chuck" Vincelette cast the only no vote, saying his first choice would be to build one high school and his second would be to go with option one.

"My opposition is based on financial concerns," he said, calculating that city could be servicing more than $2 million a year in debt. (Vincelette used a 4 percent interest rate but Bianchi said municipal bonds were lower.)

Rather, Vincelette said, the city should take the less expensive option and leverage the savings for three elementary schools that have statements of interest submitted to MSBA.

Should MSBA endorse the proposal, the details and costs will be further refined over the fall in anticipation of a vote by the MSBA board in January. After that, it would go before the City Council for funding approval. The new school would be completed in 2018.

Tags: MSBA,   school building,   school building committee,   Taconic High,   

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