AHS Building Community Forum - Jan 14th, 2019

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Tonight's public forum was an update on the high school rebuild.

Jeff Thielman speaks first. Arlington High School's enrollment is about 1400 students, and US News and World Report ranks it the 9th best high school in Massachusetts. The state placed our high school on a warning list due to a variety of physical shortcomings. The high school is a jumble of buildings, with 1.5 miles of interior hallways.

In 1970, Arlington voters rejected a plan to rebuild the high school for $19M. This required major renovations in the 1980's to the tune of 20-something million dollars. The building is old, tired, and unfit to act as a modern high school.

The high school houses a number of other groups: a preschool, the LABB Collective, the town controller, and school district offices.

The campus is 22 acres. The state would prefer 25, but we don't have that much space. We're trying to maximize field space during the reconstruction, and are coordinating with DPW on their renovation.

Enrollment is the biggest factor impacting the size and cost of the new school. We are designing to an enrollment of 1755 students.

The town closed several schools during the 1980's and 1990's, as the town was losing population. In the last 15 years, we've seen system-wide school enrollment grow from 4300 students to 6000 students.

Principal Janger speaks next. Our school design started with a vision for education. We wanted flexibility, a comfortable space, a central commons, hands-on STEM and STEAM programs, space for arts and athletics, and maker spaces.

It will be approximately three years before any classes move to the new facility.

Jeff Thielman returns to the podium. The high school will be built in phases. This allows construction to take place without losing access to any of our facilities. We set up a survey so that town residents could provide feedback on exterior design options. Design A (a "traditional" design) got the most positive feedback. We would like to incorporate some elements of the other designs, based on survey results.

Melissa Green gives an architectural overview. The building will have four wings, arranged like this

    -- athletics---------|------- Humanities ---
    -- performing arts --|------- STEAM --------

============== mass ave ======================

There will be 227 parking spaces on site, and a connection between the school and the minuteman bikeway. We'd like to preserve the trees along Mass Ave.

Jeff Thielman notes that sustainability is a big part of the design. We want a net-zero building.

A fellow named Ryan talks about sustainability features. We're designing an all-electric building, to better take advantage of renewable electricity sources. We're also planning a series of geothermal wells and heat pumps. The interior will use low- or no-VOC finishes. National Grid and Eversource are providing technical assistance on the efficiency aspects of the design.

We're targeting a 30--40% reduction in overall energy use. The building will have solar panels, so we can generate electricity on-site. We're also planning for a future where electric vehicles are common. We will install conduit underneath the parking lot, in anticipation of adding charging stations. We'll also have 100% recovery of food waste from the cafeteria.

That ends of the design and construction part of the meeting. Jeff Thielman asks for questions relating to these topics.

Question: What's the ROI for going all electric? Have we thought about putting solar panels above the parking lot?

Yes, we've been thinking about putting solar panels in the parking lots. A lifecycle analysis for ROI will come later in the project.

Patrica Worden has a prepared statement, where she essentially scolds members of the school department. Jeff Thielman responds ``Okay, I didn't hear a question in there, and moves on.

Question: Is there interplay between the new minuteman school and the Arlington high school.

Arlington high school offers a different set of programs. Nothing has changed in that regard.

Question: If the construction is done in phases, will the building warranty period start when the first phase is complete, or when the entire project is complete?

The workmanship warranty starts upon full completion of the entire project.

We now start the second half of the forum, which focuses on cost.

We have a duty to construct a school that will last for around 100 years. We've tried to maximize funding from the MSBA, and LEED certification will make us eligible for an even greater reimbursement. Several town offices will move out of the AHS, to help mitigate costs.

The Parmenter school building is owned by the select board. The school district is considering several ways of using this facility, any of which will require select board approval.

Adam Chapdelaine speaks next. The comptroller's office will move to town hall; IT and facilities will move to the new DPW facility. Next year's Central school modernization project may permit additional relocations, but that building will not accommodate everything that's currently in the high school.

We are using a value engineering process. The MSBA has approved a cost of $308M, which we cannot exceed. We'll have to make design changes if the construction estimates come out higher.

Typical construction costs for this kind of building are $533--597/square foot.

We're currently estimating a tax rate increase of $1.11 per mil to fund the debt exclusion. We won't start borrowing until 2020, and it will take several years before the full effect is seen in property taxes. June 8th is our tentative date for a vote on the debt exclusion.

Jeff Thielman speaks again. Once the MSBA approves the funding, the town has 120 days to obtain voter approval for a debt exclusion. If the debt exclusion is voted down, we'll have to do what we did in 1981: try to patch up the facility, and the costs will be completely borne by the town.

The floor is now open for questions relating to cost and finances.

Chris Loretti expresses disagreement with one of the town manager's presentation slides. There's some back and fourth about this.

Carl Wagner is unhappy with the project. He's disappointed that there hasn't been a full traffic study. He believes the work will kill trees. He believes that HMFH is a bad architectural firm who has no experience in net zero building design. He asks if the school department will commit to a full energy and traffic study. (Mr. Wagner doesn't seem too keen on building a new high school).

Several people answer these questions. With respect to trees, it depends on the final layout of the geothermal wells. The goal is to keep the well borings outside the tree canopy. We're doing energy modeling right now. We've done on-site traffic studies. TAC requested additional studies, which the town has committed to.

There are questions about what will happen if the town votes against the debt exclusion, and a request to keep the cost down.

Question: Could you explain the timing of the borrowing?

The borrowing will take place in tranches. There'll be a small one to start, then a large one, and then two smaller ones.

Question: How long will the tax increase last?

A debt exclusion is like a mortgage. This one will last for 30 years.

Question: I've heard that the high school could lose accreditation if we don't improve the facility. Could you explain what that means?

Loss of accreditation would mainly affect students going on to college, especially if the admissions program is competitive. Colleges tend to prefer students from accredited high schools. Likewise for financial aid applications. Students who graduate from an accredited high school have an easier time getting financial aid.

Comment: The current school is not accessible, and does not serve the students well. I'm concerned about the costs to residents on fixed incomes.

The town already has programs to help residents manage property tax burdens. We're also looking at a circuit breaker cap on taxes.

Question: Are there other high schools that were built on such challenging sites (e.g., the industrial contamination on the AHS site)? I can't imagine not doing this project.

The Somerville high school reconstruction came with a lot of complexities. Belmont's high school didn't.

Question: How much the the renovations cost in the 1980's?

About $24M

Question: How will site contamination affect the plans for geothermal wells?

We don't have a complete answer yet -- we're just starting to sample the soil, and we'll have more information later. The contaminated soil lies in a narrow layer, relative to the depth of a geothermal well. We'll drill through that, and underneath it's fine. These wells are a closed system. Once they're drilled and installed, the contamination won't be an issue.

Comment: Regarding the trees on the property, I'd like to see a commitment to preserving the trees, and having the tree warden involved in the project.

Tree protection is part of the project, and the tree warden will be involved.

Comment: I'm glad to hear that you're planning to incorporate elements of designs B and C.

Comment: When showing project costs, please consider showing MSBA's share, and what the town is paying.

Question: The full tax increase won't hit until 2025?

Yes, that's correct.

Comment: Having an unaccredited high school will probably have a negative impact on home values.

Question: What will this project be like for students?

We'll have to move some of the building entrances, and there will be some construction noise in front of the building. We'll find ways to make it work.

Comment: If the debt exclusion fails, MSBA may allow us to have a second try. If the second attempt fails, we'll have to start from square one, and it's unlikely that MSBA would accept our project. Lincoln spent 10 years trying to get their MSBA funding back, and they haven't been successful yet.

Question: What about enrollment fluctuations?

The building is sized for 1755 students, at a homeroom capacity of 85%. We considered additional enrollment during the planning process. Some areas are designed to allow extension. The central spine could act as cafeteria overflow.

Question: What is MSBA's reimbursement rate?

It's generally 33--38%, subject to a 48% cap.

Question: After reimbursement, how much will the town need to borrow?

We're expecting to borrow about $210M. That figure will be revised as we get further along in the planning process, and have more precise estimates.