... but 45 minutes to drive across town ...
There were some dozen docents assigned to guide guests through the new Veterans Middle School open house in September -- including Mayor Rob Dolan, who was the moving force behind this 50 million dollar project.
Here's good news:
The new middle school -- the first "all green" school in Massachusetts -- is open, functioning and obviously a tremendous success. Not only did the project come in right on schedule, but there was not a single overrun. It was estimated to cost $50 million, it went to bid at $50 million, and its final cost was exactly that.
The Mirror spoke at length with Mayor Rob Dolan last week. He was elated with his new school. He was also quite happy with the 4,000 Melrose residents who attended the open house in mid September. The reception was virtually unanimous: this is the finest school we've ever seen.
But there's more good news: The state of Massachusetts, with its School Building Project put up 62 percent of that $50 million. That means that we, the taxpayers, got this marvelous new school for a bargain price of $22 million. In real terms, the building will add $165 per year to the average real estate bill, for the next 19 years, Mayor Dolan said.
The bad news is that it takes 45 minutes to drive across town -- an inside joke with the mayor -- but it just happened that the school construction occurred just as the city was forced to repair century-old piping, then build a 48-inch pipeline to prevent flooding of Ell Pond during major storms. Mayor Dolan said, in an aside, that both sewer and Ell Pond overflow projects are near completion -- which is a story for another time.
Scenes from the library.
"People have the idea that governments -- any governments, local or state -- can't be trusted to complete a project on time and within budget," the mayor said. "They are reminded of the big dig project at Mount Hood and the Melrose Tot Lot. "Well, things have changed, and we conceived the idea of this new school, we took a great part in its design, and we were a major presence on the construction site.
More scenes from the library.
"This," he continued, "is a technologically advanced school, complete with smart boards, efficient heating and lighting systems, windows for natural light everywhere and computers that run most of the support. And it came in on time and on budget."
Looking back ...
The project was started several years ago after the old 1933 school was again flooded.
There was a great deal of discussion about whether to renovate and repair the old high school, which has suffered significantly from regular flooding -- especially heavy in the past decade. "We got our citizens involved, the pros and the parents, all members of the Board of Aldermen," the mayor said, "and there followed six months of discussion."
It won't be long before these youngsters are students in this new school.
The building had been flooded six times in the past 11 years, culminating with the "Mothers' Day flood" of 2006. "Mold and mildew had become imbedded into the floors, walls and ceilings, and especially the wood finish. The windows needed replacement and there were puddles in the boiler room -- and the boilers were scheduled to be replaced. Architects, designers and engineers were drawn in. The decision to build new, rather than repair the old, was virtually unanimous", the mayor said.
Once the decision was made, there was consideration of finding another location in the city -- such as Mount Hood or Pine Banks Park. In spite of the fact that the city owns some 43 parks in our five square miles, we are land-poor in terms of one area large enough for the middle school project. The two obvious spots were ruled out since Mount Hood had been deeded to the city with provisos that would have been impossible to fulfill; and Pine Banks is owned cooperatively by the cities of Melrose and Malden. Diverting the use of either park would have taken an act of the state legislature.
There was also a study of using the old rubber-factory works on Washington Street, but the cost of acquiring that property -- at current land-market prices -- was out of the question. Just one section of that complex was recently valued at $9,000,000.
The front hall rises four floors to a dramatic skylight.
The design was yet another six months as various experts and builders were brought in. "The team visited similar new projects in Reading, North Andover and Woburn, to gather ideas and broaden our knowledge", the Mayor said. Among the advisory group were Joe Messina, head of the fine arts program in Melrose; Mary Weeks, who runs the music program. and Charles Hay, the primary architect from Tappe Associates of Boston, the future project manager Pat Saiota, several aldermen and residents who were asked to participate. The idea was to create a design by the people who would use it, and whose children would study there.
Perhaps the key to pushing the project through was the imminent demise of the state School Building Assistance law, which would assume 62 percent of the cost of the project. That brought the dollar outlay to the city down from $50- to $22 million. In essence, it made the plan for a new middle school feasible, and the board of aldermen voted unanimously to move ahead.
The auditorium is at the left, photographed from that second floor landing.
The mayor tilted his chair back and bounced his pencil on the table. "What we have now," he said, "is the first green school in Massachusetts. Everything about this building is unique. Attention was especially paid to light, and there are windows everywhere. It is a light-filled building -- no more gloomy dark halls or classrooms.
"The classes are bright and colorful and attractive, yet energy efficiency was of major importance. For example, there is a sensor in every classroom that, when it detects no movement, will shut down the system, lights, heat and all. Solar collectors provide 20 percent of our power needs. There are high condensing boilers and even waterless urinals -- we will use 30 percent less water.
"It's all computerized," he said, smiling. It's like the home of the future has arrived. The colors are bright and upbeat, there is always available light.
The gymnsium is immense and can run three basketball games at once.
Every classroom has a hanging projector and a 'smart board' -- which replaces (in many cases) blackboards. During the recent open house, teacher Bert Whittier demonstrated to some 60 adults crowding into his classroom, how technology will be used to teach, and showed how easy it is to incorporate computers and the internet into a classroom environment.
For the sake of the students, Mayor Dolan added "You just can't be competitive today" ... without the latest in technical knowledge and equipment. "And this school has it all."
When asked how the teachers are reacting to the new era of technology, Mayor Dolan said that "most teachers have kept up and are technically knowledgeable -- and some will not find it hard to adapt."
Happy Birthday Mak, and an alum looks enviously at the electronic auditorium control panel.
The building of a new school ...
In answer to the question, how did you pick P.J.Stella Construction?, Mayor Dolan said, "They were the low bidder. It was a qualified risk, for they (Stella) had been building lots of elementary schools, but not anything this big. But Mr. Stella was passionate about the job", and convinced the committee that his firm was up to it.
Joe Stella, the son of P.J., was head of the project for his company. At the same time, the city named Pat Saiota as the their man to oversee construction -- Mr. Saiota had performed the same service at both the North Andover and Woburn school building projects. Another city man on the job was John McLaughlin of the planning office -- between the two of them they monitored the entire job. There were some heated arguments, but the job got done in time, within budget, and expertly. Rob Dolan was also a frequent visitor at the site.
"There were a lot of Melrose people on that construction crew," the mayor said, "especially iron workers."
"And while Pat and John were on site frequently," he said, "we had a lot of luck. The weather cooperated, it didn't snow until late into winter. Everything seemed to go smoothly and efficiently."
Two days before the school was to open in September, cleaning crews moved in and spent 48 hours getting it ready. Other than the painting of a few doors and other minor jobs, it was ready -- on time.
"I'm really proud of the job, and of this school," Mayor Dolan said. "A lot of people from the community had a hand in its development, and it paid off handsomely."
More photos below:
The new fits in nicely with the established.
The special needs classroom.
Photos by the author