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Science Labs: The 8+Million Question

By Ann Needle
   The much-discussed plans to renovate Nashoba Regional High School’s Science classrooms and labs were officially unveiled last night at a special School Committee meeting. Along with it came the question of whether the estimated price tag of more than $8 million would purchase what the district needs — or if the towns could afford it at all.
   Plans were kicked off in June, when the School Committee approved a feasibility study for overhauling the high school’s Science space. This came about when the Massachusetts School Building Authority accepted Nashoba’s application to receive almost 50% reimbursement for a Science renovation, a similar deal to what Stow received for a reimbursement on its Center School project.
   “The grant is for what the MSBA has outlined to bring Science labs into the 21st century,” according to Principal Phil Poinelli of SMMA Associates, the architects approved by the MSBA for the project. SMMA is the same firm that designed the Center School renovation. Wood earlier explained that the MSBA randomly appoints state-approved architects to its projects, and SMMA was appointed twice to the district by chance.
   Looking at the MSBA program, Poinelli explained that the state agency’s recommendations call for about 24 students per classroom/lab, and a room of about 1,440 sq. ft., or 60 sq. ft. per student. He remarked that NRHS currently does not meet this square footage guideline.
   The MSBA also calls for the rooms to be flexible, something that is not reflected in the high school’s use of fixed islands and shelves in its Science rooms. “Instead of going to a traditional lab period, you have the flexibility to go to lab work immediately,” he said of the recommendations.
   The potential solution focuses on carving one more classroom out of the high school’s existing rooms and bringing all the Science rooms up to the recommended footage, Poinelli explained. He noted that part of this solution would mean converting two Math classrooms to accommodate Science, and consolidating the CAD Lab with the Metal shop.
   Because the MSBA pledged to fund about 47% of the cost for any repairs related to the project, the district is proposing to replace the old roof of the 1970s addition to the school, where Science is housed. This addition also could receive new windows under the plan, given the windows were not replaced in the most recent renovation of the school, Poinelli said.
   Speaking to the educational need for the project, new NRHS Principal Parry Graham remarked, “When I walked into the labs, I felt at home — like I was back in my high school lab of the 1980s.”
   Asked about the level of need for new space, Graham replied, “The existing Science classrooms are functional teaching and learning spaces — I wouldn’t call it dire. But I see it as an opportunity to make some pretty radical improvements at a reduced cost.”  He mentioned that the current concern is not being able to offer many Science electives, such as a “cutting-edge” Biotech course.
   And this lack of flexibility for Science students has triggered some of the scheduling issues the school was faulted on by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges during NRHS’s last re-accreditation, asserted Superintendent Michael Wood. The school is up for re-accreditation in two years.
Short Time and Money
   Poinelli estimated a base cost of $5 million for the Science rooms, but slightly more than $8 million when adding in items such as windows, roofing, design fees, and related costs.
   With the MSBA calling for any accepted projects to be completed by the end of 2013, construction would begin immediately after the seniors end classes June 1, and free up a few classrooms.  Work would be finished the third week of August 2013,  Poinelli said. To stay on schedule, all three district towns must approve the spending at special town meetings this fall, Wood noted.
   Looking at the total estimated costs for the Science Labs project and the track and field project combined, the highest estimated annual cost was assessed at $541,000. Asst. Superintendent George King stressed that the district just retired its deficit bond, which averaged $478,150 annually.
   Still, among the approximately 30 guests and Committee members at last night’s meeting, concerns were expressed that this price would not buy enough space to give school officials what they’re seeking. Even if it could, this spending may be beyond town budgets.
   “We realize a reduction in the [overall] budget might be too much to ask,” said Lancaster Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco. “But at the same time, this project is a small page in a very large book. As soon as we get the school budget [every year], we have to cut.”
   With the schematic design due to the MSBA by September 27, Committee Chair Nancy Federspiel of Bolton remarked that the Committee would likely be discussing any needed actions  on the project at its September 10 meeting.