The case for a new school: Easthampton officials explain the need for consolidated building

  • Center/Pepin School principal Allison Rebello visits the school's cafeteria which is located in the Pepin building and also doubles as an indoor recess area during inclement weather. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center/Pepin School principal Allison Rebello visits the cafeteria/auditorium at the Easthampton elementary school where the stage doubles as an indoor recess area during rainy days. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • This is the boys bathroom in the Center building of Center/Pepin School in Easthampton which is located in the basement of the two-story building. The roughly 200 students at the school have one set of bathrooms to use. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Center/Pepin School's Pepin building, at 4 Park Street in Easthampton, was once the town's high school. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center/Pepin School students in Easthampton make their daily trek from the Center building, where this picture was taken from, to the Pepin building on Friday. Pepin, the former Easthampton High School, has a gymnasium, library, cafeteria and auditorium but no playground. Center has an outdoor playground but none of the other facilities. On rainy days students come to the auditorium for indoor recess. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Pepin building of Center/Pepin School in Easthampton features a gymnasium that was part of the old Easthampton High School. Located above it is an auditorium that also serves as a cafeteria - but all lunches are prepared at White Brook Middle School and delivered to the elementary school daily. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • One of the rooms in the basement of the Center building of Center/Pepin School in Easthampton has been partitioned into smaller rooms with drop ceilings like this one where an upright panel separates a tech/utility area from a meeting space. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center/Pepin School principal Allison Rebello visits one of the larger rooms in the Pepin building - the old high school - on Friday, March 31, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The design of the old buildings of the Center/Pepin School in Easthampton feature large hallways and stairwell landings that now serve as functional, though not private, meeting places. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center/Pepin School students in Easthampton walk from Center to Pepin on Friday, March 31, 2017. Pepin, the former Easthampton High School, has a gymnasium, library, cafeteria and auditorium but no playground. Center has an outdoor playground but none of the other facilities. On rainy days students come to the auditorium for indoor recess. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A small area outside the elevator in the Pepin building of Center/Pepin School in Easthampton is put to use as a "break out" space. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The playground for Center/Pepin School in Easthampton is located on the southeast side of the Center building at 9 School Street. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jaclyn Essa visits with Maple School preschoolers Bishop Grey, 4, and Julia Shapleigh, 3, in her office at the Easthampton elementary school on Monday. The office was once a closet space in the 19th century building. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The library at Maple Elementary School in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Maple School principal Judy Averill visits a fourth grade play rehearsal in the room that serves as the Easthampton elementary school's gymnasium, cafeteria and largest meeting space on Monday, March 27, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Rosienski, left, delivers hot lunches to Maple School lead server Nancy Lamour in the basement of the Easthampton elementary school on Monday, March 27, 2017. The lunches are prepared each morning at White Brook Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Maple School's front property line on Chapel Street in Easthampton contains the only "green" space the elementary school has. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Two Maple School fourth graders bring music stands to the gymnasium/cafeteria in the basement of the Easthampton elementary school for a rehearsal of the school play on Monday, March 27, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Maple School's front property line on Chapel Street in Easthampton contains the only "green" space the elementary school has. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A partial wall divides two classrooms at the White Brook Middle School in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • White Brook Middle School. 03/30/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • White Brook Middle School. 03/30/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

Published: 4/1/2017 12:12:47 AM

EASTHAMPTON — The city’s three elementary schools are doing what they can to use the all space they have, but the breaking point is near — if it hasn’t already passed.

“We are stretched to the limit in every way,” Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said.

During a recent tour of the four district schools most in need of replacement — Maple Elementary, Center Elementary and Pepin Elementary schools and White Brook Middle School — officials showed the Gazette numerous inefficiencies that inhibit instruction in some cases and are unsafe in others.

A few examples:

At Maple School some of the former coat closets are serving as office and learning space.

At Center and Pepin schools, break-off and study groups meet in the hallways, landings of stairwells and any other extra space available.

At Center School, custodial supplies are located in the boy’s restroom as well as the entrance to the electrical closet. A sign hangs on the closet door reading “Danger. Asbestos.”

At Pepin, the walls are painted with lead, although multiple layers of paint has been applied over a number of years.

At White Brook, asbestos is present in the floor tiles, counter tops, pipe insulation and boilers.

The old school facilities and inefficient learning spaces have led the school district to come to a tough financial conclusion. It’s time, they say, to consolidate the four schools into one building at the site of White Brook that would house all 1,010 pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 students, a project estimated to cost between $100 million to $156 million.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority may reimburse roughly half of the costs, leaving an estimated $50 million to $78 million in costs for the city.

That expense still might end up being a bargain compared to what it would cost to bring the four existing schools up to code. The city’s School Building Committee estimates that expense at $115 million, all of which would need funding by the city because the MSBA does not participate in code compliance and repair-only projects.

Many of the schools are not up to par with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Center School is not handicapped-accessible, Maple is only handicapped-accessible in certain areas and White Brook lacks handicap bathroom stalls.

Either financial option won’t be an easy ask for city residents, who have faced several key decisions related to the public schools in recent years.

On the one hand, residents supported construction of and are still paying for a new $39.2 million high school which opened in 2013. In 2010, voters approved an $18 million debt exclusion override to pay for the city’s portion of the new high school — meaning property taxes would be raised over a 20-year period. MSBA covered 64 percent of the costs.

But in 2012, voters rejected an $1.4 million property tax override to restore cuts in school staff and programs as well as to invest in technology and world language education.

Expensive upkeep

The school district does its best to keep the school’s functioning, but it isn’t cheap. School officials say White Brook is in worse shape than the city’s three 100-year-old elementary schools.

The district’s budget for contracted maintenance and general repairs is $100,000, according to director of maintenance Eric LeBeau. While that’s an average amount for a district the size of Easthampton, LeBeau said a majority of that money is dumped into White Brook.

“The maintenance is a nightmare,” he said.

Follansbee said there have been recent upgrades to lighting, heating and building envelopes of the schools. And in in 2014, Easthampton was awarded a Green Communities grant of $147,653 for energy conservation measures at the schools.

“When MSBA came to visit originally to look at our buildings, they commented on the good condition they were in despite of their age,” Follansbee said.

But general maintenance and emergency repairs are still expensive. This school year, for example, the district has had to repair two boilers to the tune of $36,766.

Each school has its own unique problems. Here’s a look at some of them.

Maple School

Maple School, located at 7 Chapel St., began as an eight-room schoolhouse in 1896 with gas lamps that illuminated the building. An addition with eight more classrooms was constructed in 1924.

“Our new and modern Maple Street building is proving all that was expected,” Easthampton’s annual report of 1897 reads. “The moral effect of a large, well ventilated, well lighted room upon the pupils is great, and the arrangement of the building admits of systematic and orderly movements of the schools under one head.”

Fast forward nearly a century later and those words simply don’t reflect the educational experience. Space is cramped and inefficient. Small group instruction is done in hallways. Long, narrow coat-closets has been converted into office and work space.

“We use every ounce of this space,” Principal Judy Averill said.

At Maple a larger room in the basement is used as a cafeteria, gymnasium and space for presentations and performances.

“We call it the ‘cafe-gym-atorium,’” LeBeau said.

The student bathrooms are on the basement level meaning some students must walk down two flights of stairs to use them.

If auditorium space is needed, students and teachers will walk to Pepin on 4 Park St.

The playground area is blacktop. During snow emergencies, cars must park in the playground area.

The small amount of green space in the front of school is used for a garden. Averill said they do what they can with the space they have. Averill’s husband built covers for some of the radiators as well as an outdoor shed for additional storage.

One teacher’s husband built shelves for storage space. And 22 people volunteered at a school painting project last summer.

“The building is really loved,” Averill said.

Center and Pepin

In 1902, Center Elementary school, 9 School St., was built to accommodate the growing community in Easthampton. A high school was built across the street at 4 Park St. in 1912.

The high school was later renamed after Neil A. Pepin. In 1989, the building was renovated and it later became an elementary school.

Now, the two elementary schools share resources the other lacks, running together under the same principal — Allison Rebello.

Pepin students use the playground and art room at Center while Center students use the gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, library and music room at Pepin.

Center students walk over to Pepin at least twice a day, and Pepin students walk to Center once a day. Rebello said her style has changed as she has to dress appropriately to trek back and forth to each school.

Some students start pre-K at Maple, but must move to Center or Pepin for kindergarten. Students often switch enrollment between Pepin and Center from year to year depending on class space and resources.

The basement of Center houses the nurse’s office and restrooms as well as the art room and additional study space.

Support services for subjects such as reading and math are in hallways and landings of stairways. One break-off area for occupational therapy in a small space next to the elevator. Rebello said the instructor got creative with the space.

At Center, LeBeau said the exterior brick and masonry is starting to crumble. Rebello said one student was able to take out a brick from the wall.

The heating is inconsistant at the schools. Rebello said classrooms often have “heat battles” as some students will be bundled up in their jackets while at a neighboring classroom others are wearing T-shirts.

As for the auditorium, it shares a space with the cafeteria. Indoor recess takes place in the auditorium, and it can get noisy during lunch.

Last year, Rebello did a survey to see what students wanted for their school. She found most of the kids just want grass.

White Brook

While Easthampton’s elementary schools are some of the oldest in the state, White Brook Middle School is in the worst shape.

But in the 1970s, the open-classroom layout of the school was a new trend at the time. The open space allowed multiple teachers in one area, students could float from one classroom to the other, working in teams. Building a middle school would alleviate the overcrowding both the city’s elementary and high school were facing.

And there was a pool the community could use.

But the school’s layout soon became an inconvenience and maintenance became costly.

The roof failed shortly after the school was constructed in 1975, leading to seven years of leaks until a new roof was built in 1982. The leaky roof also lead to water damage to the school’s pool area. The school department sued the architect, contracting firm and roofer for about $500,000. In 1999, the roof was replaced again using city capital funds.

The building has poor energy efficiency. The school is the largest consumer of electricity in the city. LeBeau said the HVAC system is a “gas hog.”

The HVAC system is about 40 years old and past its life expectancy. LeBeau said about $10,000 is spent each year on service calls for general repairs to the system. According to Follansbee, classes at White Brook migrate away from windows and “cold spots” during instructional time.

Some joke that the building is sinking as water seeps up through the floor.

The school consists of six pods, with each pod containing six to eight classrooms. Principal Meredith Balise said curtains were used to separate class areas before partition walls were installed about 15 years ago. They are now anchored to the floor. But there are no doors to each classroom space and jerry-rigged walls offer little sound barrier, causing teacher’s voices to travel.

The pool closed around 2007 by the state department of health due to rusting of the ceilings, beams, duct work and roof decking.

Overcrowding is not an issue at White Brook, where 451 students, grades 5 through 8, are enrolled for a building designed to house 1,100 students, though that occupancy figure is 800 based on today’s educational requirements, officials said.

The kitchen at White Brook supplies food for the three elementary schools. However, LeBeau said thousands of dollars are spent each year maintaining and repair the over 40-year-old equipment which is past life expectancy.

21st Century learning

School officials say the buildings do not support current educational standards and that they want to embrace 21st Century learning, but what does that mean?

The first thing Dayle Doiron, the district’s director of business services, thinks about is embedding technology into learning. While all schools have Wi-Fi internet as well as laptop carts, the schools can share resources by consolidating, Doiron said.

Follansbee said the approach now is more collaborative learning, meaning that students work in small groups and complete more project-based learning.

Doiron said the elementary school classrooms were designed for students sitting in rows and a teacher standing in front of them. Education is much more active today, and new school buildings are designed to reflect this change, she said.

“We would like to have all teachers and all students have access to natural light,” Follansbee said.

MSBA grant

To receive state funding for a school project, MSBA requires communities to submit multiple designs and studies.

For Easthampton, that means designs are being drafted in three main areas — minor renovations, major renovations and a new school on the White Brook site.

Options must be thoroughly explored, and a preferred design will be submitted to MSBA.

A public vote on the funding for the building project will be in spring 2018. The project timeline anticipates that construction could begin as early as 2019, and be complete in August 2020.

The architectural firm Caolo & Bieniek is looking into possible designs for merging the four schools at the White Brook site. There are plans for separate wings of the school for elementary and middle school classrooms. A new school would allow full handicap access, green spaces for science classes, share resources — promotes collaboration, consistency and delivery of the curriculum.

LeBeau said with just a little training, just about anyone can work on the maintenance.

For new buildings, the technology is great when it’s working, LeBeau said. And when it’s not, he said it’s costly to fix.

School Building Committee members say a consolidated school would save money in emergency repairs, snow removal and maintenance.

Although a lot of the newer equipment is easier to maintain, LeBeau said the city needs to plan financially for upkeep. “The city’s got to make sure they put money aside so that preventative maintenance is done,” LeBeau said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at

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