ASHBY -- The cost of major renovations to the existing high school or replacing the 50-year-old building is about the same, according to figures presented at a community forum held by the School Building Committee Monday.
The forum at the Ashby Elementary School was part of the feasibility and study phase for upgrading the North Middlesex Regional High School. The district serves the towns of Ashby, Townsend and Pepperell.
Partial funding for high school improvements is available through the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The MSBA requires districts to study options for replacing existing buildings in order to be eligible for a grant. If major renovations or new construction is approved, the MSBA can reimburse the towns for approximately 60 percent of the costs.
Renovation of the existing building could entail the repurposing of existing space, demolition of some areas and the addition of new wings, according to a presentation given by Alex Pitkin of Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates.
Another option for bringing the school into 21st century educational practices would entail a new building on the present site, he said.
Both options are similar in cost, said Robert Templeton, chairman of the building committee, about $100 million. The towns would be responsible for about 40 percent of the cost if approved by the MSBA.
The estimates of costs and the scope of work is very rough at this point, said the owner's project manager Peter Collins, of Heery International. "Right now we're in the study phase," he said.
He compared the present options to looking at the ground from thousands of feet up. As the details are worked out, figures and plans will become more concrete.
"The committee over the next few weeks will drill down," Pitkin said. They will look at ways to make the building the best it can be for the community. They can look at ways of changing the options to save money or include more things the community needs.
Pros and cons exist for each option, he said. New construction would have a minimal effect on current students because they could use the old building until a new one is built. However, new construction could impact the athletic fields or septic system. It would take about 24 months to build the school, the demolition of the old building would follow.
Renovations that include demolition and repurposing would take considerably longer, more than three years, since the work would need to be done during the summer and classrooms would need to be moved around to accommodate the changes.
Serving the students' needs and providing a building the community can afford are both priorities for the committee, Templeton said. The student body is expected to be smaller in years to come, so the square footage will not need to increase.
The current high school population is around 1,000 students, said Superintendent Joan Landers. In the last 10 years, the district's school-age population has dropped between 500 and 600 students.
Although the square footage will likely decrease, the layout of the building must change to meet current educational practices for the projected 875 students who will use the building each year. Science, technology, engineering and math classrooms should be in close proximity as should the humanities classrooms, said members of the building committee and Pitkin.
Audience members asked about an option to renovate the existing school that would bring it up to building code. The estimated cost for that renovation is approximately $39 million.
The towns would not receive any reimbursement for a code only renovation from MSBA, Templeton said. The option was included only because it was required by the terms of the grant. Such a renovation would bring the school up to current building codes but would not make the changes required for certification from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and it would not meet MSBA requirements.
The final taxpayer cost for a code-only renovation would be the same as the cost for a new school once the grant from the MSBA is factored in.
The study also looked at other options that were found to be unfeasible. The current unused or underused buildings in the district are not big enough to use as a high school and lack the space for parking and athletic facilities needed, Pitkin said. It is not educational or operationally sound to divide the high school into two groups by class levels.
The school was recommended to remain at the present site because it is a central location for the three member towns.
The building committee will meet again and hold a community forum on June 3 at the high school. Before that meeting, committee members will review the options presented. The committee's final decision will be made public June 17 at a community forum at the Nissitisset Middle School in Pepperell.
Then the next phase of the project will begin. The MSBA will review the plans and communicate with the district by the end of July.