By Jennifer Solis Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Voters at a Special Town Meeting on Thursday were split on approval of three building upgrades for the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School.
The 124 voters who met in the Town Annex approved a request from the Board of Selectmen for $35,000 to enhance lighting and access for an entrance lobby that will connect a proposed gymnasium to the existing school building by adding more doors and windows than required under state building codes.
They also OK’d $33,000 for electrical improvements that will address frequent tripping of panels and the possible need for heating feeders or branch circuits within the original building.
But they rejected a plan to spend $120,000 to change the masonry material from colored concrete to brick on the western facing wall of the new gym. The western facing wall is the one closest to the parking lot.
Brad Dore of the Page School Building Committee said these were three improvements included in the original scope of work that were moved to a list of alternative upgrades as a cost-saving measure early on in the project. If voters anticipate wanting these upgrades at some point, the most cost-effective time to add them is now, Dore said.
Voters liked the idea of broadening accessibility to the highly trafficked entrance way to the gym and supported improving the aging school’s electrical system.
But ultimately they rejected a plan to bring a portion of the new gym’s exterior more in line with the iconic brick of the 100 year-old school building. With so many potential unforeseen costs looming on this project and other projects in town, it was simply a case of “nice to have versus necessary,” said Jean Lambert.
Selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles, who voted against the masonry upgrade, said he would rather see the money used “for further projects to enhance education.” And Tom Atwood reminded voters that the regional middle and high schools were also facing costly renovation or replacements projects in the not too distant future.
John McGrath felt that because the original funding was approved through a ballot initiative, any further spending for the project should also be brought to voters at the polls. He also suggested that concrete block walls might lend themselves to more creativity for murals than a brick wall would.
Rick Parker of the Energy Advisory Committee argued for taking steps now during the construction phase to allow for the installation of solar energy panels down the road.
Although he originally favored the masonry upgrade, Selectman Glenn Kemper told voters that after recently reviewing a list of items for Phase III of the project, he’s changed his mind.
Still, Kemper assured voters that all items that were critical safety issues for the school building had been or would addressed with money already funded for the project.
And he applauded the building committee for bringing these additional upgrades — which he described as cosmetic and not critical — back again for Town Meeting approval.
The original cost to renovate the school to extend its life for the next 20 to 30 years was $20 million. However, voters approved just $10 million for the project at a Special Town Meeting in 2010. At the time, voters were told any money received through the state’s Green School Repair Program would be used to reduce that funding authorization.
The state has reimbursed the town $1.6 million for installation of boilers, windows and roofing during Phase I of the project, bringing the cost to the taxpayers for the original project down to $8.4 million. According to the Finance Committee appropriation’s booklet, as of Oct. 9, Phase I is “substantially complete” with 8 percent remaining unspent in the $3.4 million allocated for this phase.
This spring voters agreed to move $745,000 from the Community Preservation Act account for a heating distribution system for the building as part of the project’s Phase II. To date, $837,675 has been spent and 96 percent of the total $7.5 million Phase II budget has been committed.
The Finance Board cautioned the town “to expect articles presented every year for funds to continue to renovate and maintain Page School for the next 10 to 15 years.”
It also recommended the building committee provide a five-year capital plan to help the town adequately prepare for what could wind up being another $10 million in improvements for the school.
Mickey Culver supported that idea, saying he was starting to worry about “scope creep.”
“The time to have a better plan is now,” he said.