Proposed Wareham elementary school closer to having site as options are narrowed

Selectmen vote on 2 sites for combined school
Jan 17, 2018

Options for the site of a new, combined elementary school were narrowed down Tuesday night to either near Town Hall and the Minot Forest Elementary School as Selectmen voted on their two favorite sites.

The list of possibilities started with 12 and ended with four, but Selectmen unanimously voted to continue looking into those sites as the best options for the consolidated elementary school.

The two existing elementary schools in Wareham are the Minot Forest Elementary School, serving grades 3 and 4, and John W. Decas Elementary School, serving kindergarten to grade 2. Minot Forest Elementary School is more than 50 years old and has outdated electrical wiring, a lack of space and windows, floors, ceilings and boilers that need to be replaced. After voters at April Town Meeting approved the borrowing of $1 million to fund a feasibility study, the School Building Committee (which has 23 members) has been trying to create a space that is agreeable to students and community members.

The feasibility study will explore different options for revamping the school. The study is a requirement of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will reimburse the town 70 percent of the project’s construction cost. The committee chose Mount Vernon Group Architects as the architecture group for the project.

Now, the feasibility study must produce a preliminary design proposal, which will be sent in next week for approval. The proposal must contain information on educational programs and how the building will match the school's educational goals, a space summary with enrollment numbers, and an analysis of potential sites for the rebuild.

The more narrowly focused the preliminary design proposal can be, the better, officials said. So members of Mount Vernon Group Architects and the School Building Committee sought the input of Selectmen. After consideration of many locations around town, the committee narrowed it down to four: the current site of Minot Forest Elementary School, the area of Town Hall and Wareham Middle School, the current John W. Decas Elementary School location and an area on 16 Minot Ave., located next to the Minot Elementary property.

The pros and cons of each location were discussed, ranging from accessibility of roads to utilities to floodplain concerns. All the buildings would accommodate approximately 1,020 students from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade (currently, Minot Forest Elementary School has around 406 students and John W. Decas Elementary School has 577). The Massachusetts School Building Authority assumes 85 percent space utilization and includes room for growth opportunities in enrollment.

After weighing the pros and cons, Selectmen voted in support of combining the two elementary schools and narrowing down site options to just two.

Minot Forest Elementary School rebuild

Dennis Daly, principal of Mount Vernon Group Architects, showed off a detailed plan of a potential construction layout at the current location of Minot Forest Elementary School.

The building would be demolished and a new one established in its place, with two different entrances, one for upper levels and one for lower levels. There would also be a separate early education center.

"Students could go through elementary school in one building, but still stay in smaller learning communities," Daly said.

Tying both sides of the school together would be a media center. The "spine" of the building would contain general facilities used by students and the public, like a cafeteria, gym and stage.

"Each one is a neighborhood all coming together as an educational village," Daly said.

Selectman Patrick Tropeano favored this option.

"It seems obvious to me which site is the most viable," he said.

He reasoned that, since Minot Forest Elementary is in an elevated, dry location, there would be few problems with flooding. This would also leave the current John W. Decas Elementary School building, valuable real estate in a good location, available to be sold or used for another purpose.

Town Hall/Wareham Middle School site

Building an elementary school on Marion Road near where the Town Hall currently is was an attractive option to some Selectmen, though it has its challenges.

Because of the wetland area in this location, a structural fill would have to be imported, costing $2.3 million. There is no way to make a building in this site completely out of the flood zone, so the school would have to be elevated, Daly said. Traffic mitigation would also be a concern on the busy road. The school would use the current Wareham Middle School and build another structure nearby, but Town Hall and the middle school would not be torn down.

But since the school building is expected to serve the community for at least 75 years, this additional cost might be worth it, suggested Selectman Alan Slavin.

"Wareham has a history of doing things the easy way, and it costs us a lot of money in the long run," Slavin said.

Slavin proposed moving middle school students to Wareham High School, since the building is currently operating at around half capacity. This campus setup would make the bus process easier, Slavin said, and school maintenance staff could stay in one central location.

"I want to build something that I know, even when I'm gone, it's going to function," he said.