Replacing middle schools on ballot in Holyoke

  • H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laura Battles, an English-language learner teacher at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The entrance to H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke, where there is a rendition of the proposed new school that would be built in the empty lot across the street. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • First graders in Sue Leary’s class at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sue Leary, a first grade teacher at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Whitney Anderson, Holyoke Public Schools maintenance administrator, talks about conditions at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A hallway at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke, where many of the windows do not open and the circular building makes it difficult to see students down the hallways. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Auditorium at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gym at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Whitney Anderson, the Holyoke Public Schools maintenance administrator, and Judy Taylor, the district’s communications director, at William R. Peck Middle School. This classroom has no windows and is built with risers making the space not usable and not accessible to all students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A student walks down the hall at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. The building was built in a circular fashion that makes it difficult to see students down the hallways. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Jacob Rosa, Makenzie Rodriguez, and Samalia Moya, fifth graders at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke, work in Gisela Costas’ classroom, where the windows do not open. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Janayshia Lopez works with Gisela Costas, a fifth-grade teacher at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Whitney Anderson, the Holyoke Public Schools maintenance administrator, speaks about conditions at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. This classroom is only accessible by walking through other classrooms. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrea Salvas, the assistant principal at William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke, talks about the building. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A rendering by Jones Whitsett Architects of the two proposed middle schools in Holyoke. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A rendering by Jones Whitsett Architects of a new middle school proposed on the site of William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A rendering by Jones Whitsett Architects of a proposed middle school that would be located on Chestnut Street in Holyoke across from H.B. Lawrence Elementary School. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2019 5:58:17 PM
Modified: 9/27/2019 5:58:07 PM

HOLYOKE — When temperatures soar outside, classrooms inside William R. Peck Middle School can get even hotter. 

Andrea Salvas, the assistant principal at the school, which serves students in grades four through eight, remembers seeing teachers with sweat soaking through their shirts on the first day of school this year. And her thoughts jumped to how students felt in that heat.

“The children can not engage in learning if it’s stifling in the classrooms,” Salvas said.

Salvas spoke Tuesday while giving the Gazette a tour of Peck, situated off Northampton Street near Crosier Field. The school is one of two in the district — together with H.B. Lawrence Elementary School on Cabot Street — that could be replaced if voters on Nov. 5 approve building two 550-student middle schools. 

The project would receive up to $75.8 million in funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA, but residents would have to approve a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to cover the remaining $54 million estimated to fund the project. Voting “yes” would send the project to the City Council, which would vote on issuing a bond. Voting “no” would mean the city would decline the state money and wouldn’t build the new schools.

Debate over the debt-exclusion vote has crescendoed as Nov. 5 approaches, with the “yes” and “no” camps making their cases in person and online. 

“It’s obviously a challenging conversation,” said Stephen Zrike, the school district’s receiver and superintendent. Residents have to balance the “tremendous needs” at the schools with their ability to pay for them, he said, adding that he didn’t want to speculate how residents will vote. “We have to plan for both scenarios,” he said. 

The issues at Peck, built in 1973, are significant: internal classrooms with no windows that swelter in the heat; mechanical systems at the end of their design lives or, like the air conditioning, missing vital components that are no longer made; classrooms Wi-Fi can’t reach; unusable science labs; a hexagonal design that blocks internal visibility and teachers’ ability to monitor the halls; windows that don’t open; and many spaces that make teaching difficult, according to school district employees. 

As one example of a classroom with difficulties, Salvas and Whitney Anderson, the district’s maintenance administrator, showed the Gazette a room originally intended for fourth graders. Upon entering, there are steps leading up to risers that make the classroom look like a strange, miniature lecture hall. 

“It’s not appropriate for fourth-grade students,” Salvas said. Administrators tried to use the room for a professional leadership space, but it gets too hot inside, she said. “And it’s not accessible,” Anderson noted.

At the stately, Gothic-style Lawrence School, fixes are less urgent. Unlike at Peck, the city would not demolish the Lawrence building as part of the middle schools building project, but would instead conduct a process to decide what to do with it — repurpose or sell it, for example. The school was built in 1930. 

But with demand for more middle school space in the district, the Lawrence building doesn’t fit that need; the building and classrooms are too small for the kind of educational spaces needed in today’s middle schools such as science and computer labs. Bringing the necessary electricity, internet and equipment into those rooms would be very difficult, Anderson said.

“It doesn’t lend itself to renovation,” he said. Renovating Peck, meanwhile, would cost $59 million to bring the building up to current code, and more than $70 million “to meet the district’s educational outcomes,” according to the superintendent’s office.

The new buildings, meanwhile, would feature STEM and science labs, as well as updated teaching technology, including a device for each student.

Also included in the project budget is money needed to rent space for current middle schoolers while construction is underway.

School officials said the district’s middle school population is currently underserved by the infrastructure in the district. Middle schoolers are split among seven different buildings, making educational opportunities such as arts programming very difficult to organize.

By building new middle schools and redistricting, Zrike said, the district wants to move toward a system of separate elementary and middle schools. He said that system can provide better educational opportunities to students, pointing to significant standardized test improvements at two city elementary schools, Joseph Metcalf and E. N. White, as early signs of success for that model.

Financing

In its latest projections, the city and its financial adviser, Hilltop Securities, estimate that if the city takes out a 30-year bond toward the middle schools, residential property owners would pay an additional 68 cents per $1,000 of property value in taxes and commercial property owners would pay an additional $1.40 per $1,000 of property value.

For the average single-family home, valued at $190,637, that 68-cent increase would mean paying an additional $129.60 per year.

The city could decide to take out a 20- or 25-year bond instead, paying more in the short term but saving overall in the long run. On a 20-year bond, homeowners would pay 94 cents per $1,000 of property value and commercial property owners $1.95 per $1,000 of property value. For a 25-year bond, those numbers are 77 cents per $1,000 for residential and $1.60 per $1,000 for commercial.

The figures could change based on future interest rates, additional offsets and additional funding sources, according to city officials. The tax increase would not take effect for another two or three years when the first payment is due.

Those in favor of the project say that building the new schools would save money in the long run. For example, Zrike said the district would save as much as $5 million a year by “right-sizing” the district’s portfolio of buildings.

“We’re just running way too many buildings for the amount of kids we have,” he said.

Then there is the approximately $14 million that Zrike said leaves the district annually when students use school choice to attend charter schools or schools in another district. Building new schools could help stem that outflow of funding, he said.

“It’s not just about school buildings, but that’s a lot of it,” he said. 

Other perspectives

Mimi Panitch, a member of the city’s Planning Board, is one resident who has big questions about the project. She is skeptical about some of the city’s revenue projections, and notes that some low- and middle-income homeowners are already financially stretched.

“This is a tremendously expensive project and we’re a poor city,” Panitch said. “We should not be just blowing past the legitimate concerns of people for whom this isn’t just one cappuccino a day, because they can’t afford to buy cappuccino.”

Panitch wondered whether there are cheaper alternatives to building the schools, and said she would like to see a comparison with the costs of not building in the district. She also wonders whether the buildings really will improve middle-school performance.

At-Large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi is one of those leading the “Yes to Invest” campaign in favor of the project. She said building new learning environments will absolutely help students’ learning experiences. 

“I think it’s a once-in-a-generation chance for Holyoke to seize an opportunity for investment in the schools,” she said. The last time the district built a new building was in 1989.

Lisi also pointed to the lengthy process that brought the city to this point. The district conducted a facilities audit in 2016, decided in 2017 based on community input to move toward distinct elementary and middle schools, and in 2018 the Building Committee recommended the two middle schools project. 

“I think that when people take the time to understand that there was a process — and the information that was shared in the process — I think it becomes undeniable that we need these buildings,” Lisi said. Otherwise, the district is “throwing money away” on maintaining old buildings, she said. “The entire community suffers if we can’t educate our youth to become the leaders that we need for tomorrow.”

Mayor Alex Morse and state Rep. Aaron Vega will hold two public discussions on the project next month. The first is Monday, Oct. 7, at Peck School from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The second is Tuesday, Oct. 15, at Enlace de Familias at 299 Main St. from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Spanish-language interpretation and child care will be provided at both events.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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