Athol Royalston School Committee votes to explore new high school

Athol Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee Chair Ken Duffy briefs the Athol Royalston Regional School Committee on his concerns over moving ahead with plans to build a new high school.

Athol Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee Chair Ken Duffy briefs the Athol Royalston Regional School Committee on his concerns over moving ahead with plans to build a new high school. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-22-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – The Athol Royalston Regional School Committee voted Wednesday night to inform the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) that it wants to explore the feasibility of a new high school.

The Statement of Interest has to be in the MSBA’s hands by April 12. The vote came following a presentation by Greg Smolley, senior project manager for Drummey Rosane Anderston (DRA), Inc., of South Windsor, Connecticut, the firm hired to undertake a facilities assessment of the four school buildings in the district.

Once a Statement of Interest is sent to the MSBA, Smolley said the decision to accept it will be made in December. If accepted, district communities will, by October 2025, need to come up with the funds to undertake a feasibility study, estimated at $1.5-and-$1.7 million.

The Statement of Interest cites two main reasons for a new high school—the need to prevent overcrowding due to increased enrollment and to provide for a full range of programs consistent with state and local requirements.

“When we look at projecting the cost of simply maintaining the building as it is in its current configuration over the next 20 years, we total up to just under $70 million,” Smolley said. “That’s on top of what’s been invested in windows and roofs and whatnot into the building already. We see the majority of that hit ($31.2 million) coming around 2030. So, within the next six years, the majority of systems that would be needed would come due.”

Issues with the high school, said Smolley, include the need for major renovations, inadequate indoor environmental quality and the overall cost of ongoing upkeep. He added that the existing structure is unable to accommodate a modern high school curriculum. The site of the high school, he said, would be able to accommodate a new building which “offers potential for better-focused curricular offerings.”

DRA is also recommending a new classroom alignment. The proposal calls for Athol Community Elementary School (ACES) and Royalston Community School (RCS) to house kindergarten through grade four. The fifth through seventh grades would be in Athol Royalston Middle School (ARMS), and the high school would serve universal pre-kindergarten and grades 8 through 12.

Next steps for the district

Project funding would be need to be announced by December 2025. The MSBA generally reimburses between 40 and 85% of new school construction costs—with the rest being paid for by Athol and Royalston taxpayers. If all goes according to plan, design will be completed in 2027, with construction underway the following year and opening in 2030.

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Smolley cautioned that the committee would have to wait until next year to submit an SOI if it failed to meet the April 12 deadline. The delay of a year, he said, could bump up the cost of a feasibility study to around $2 million.

Ken Duffy, chair of the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee asked the board to consider some things before voting to go ahead with the SOI.

“Back in March of 2018, there was a Special Town Meeting that approved $10 million for repair of the high school – and that was a $10 million project,” Duffy said. “And at that time, we were just getting going with the ACES building; it had opened up a year or two earlier…But we went to the people and said (the high school) needs work – we need to get some more time out of that building.”

Duffy explained that the motion approved by Town Meeting voters stated that the repairs to AHS would extend the life of the building for at least another 15 years.

“That, I believe, is why the townspeople supported that, coming just on the heels of dividing up the ACES payments,” he said. “So that’s a commitment the town and the district made to the townspeople and the taxpayers. We told them they would be getting X number of years from that $10 million, of which $2 million came from the towns, $8 million from the MSBA.”

Duffy reminded the committee that Athol is continuing to pay for the high school work and ACES, along with covering the costs of bridge work, road repairs, and other infrastructure projects.

“In 2018, I think we were in a completely different world than we are in now. COVID opened our eyes to the things that (the high school) was lacking in structures, in science and engineering programming that our kids desperately need,” said School Committee member Laura Robinson. “My son ended up going to Monty Tech instead of staying at Athol because Athol couldn’t provide the engineering programming that he absolutely had to be part of.

“You look at our science classrooms, they’re made for the 50s. We have to upgrade things if we want to be competitive in any way, and we have to do it soon. We’re doing a huge disservice to our kids right now.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.