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Another look at the LHS project

Date: 4/12/2010

There is a posting on the Longmeadow High School Building Committee (LHSBC) web site claiming to set the record straight. It states, in part, that "it is important that the facts (their underline) about the Longmeadow High School (LHS) building project are clearly articulated". But the LHSBC "facts" make no mention of how the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) was persuaded to reverse itself and approve development of Scheme 2B, demolition and new construction (D&C).

After a spirited meeting in Boston concerning Scheme 2B, D&C, emails were sent to the LHSBC members stating that MSBA had requested further study of a scheme for rehab of the existing building and submittal of related new documents. Rumor has it that contact was then made with elected officials and, shortly thereafter, MSBA suffered a change of heart and approved the Longmeadow School Committee (LSC) wish list plan, Scheme 2B, D&C.

The date of approval shown in the Web site posting is 18 Nov. 2009. On the front page of The Reminder dated 23 Nov. 2009 is the headline, "MSBA approves Longmeadow High School's option 2B". Below the headline is a photograph of Principal Larry Berte at the podium, welcoming Congressman Richard Neal, State Senator Gale Candaras, and State Representative Brian Ashe to the approval announcement press conference which took place on 20 Nov. 2009.

The Reminder article also quotes the MSBA executive director Katherine Craven's statement that the new facility will address the LSC's mythical, "overcrowding at the Longmeadow High School". And it mentions that, at the press conference held on Friday, 20 Nov. 2009, where the welcoming photograph was taken, Neal, Candaras, and Ashe "voiced their support of the project to Craven".

The sequence of events on Nov. 18, 20, and 23 reported in the Reminder article raises a legitimate question as to whether Scheme 2B, demolition and new construction, was approved based solely upon its merits, as claimed by the LHSBC.

With regard to rehab versus new construction, the LHSBC web site posting states that,"... the District selected three options as being the options that most favorably address the District's educational goals, construction cost criteria, and operational costs". One of the three options chosen was Scheme 1B, described as, "Full Renovation with limited relocation of program areas and demolition of interior walls to accommodate larger classrooms". Inclusion of that option by the LHSBC was a clear and unequivocal statement that rehab of the present LHS building would meet our needs. And conventional wisdom reliably places the cost of rehab at half the cost of demolition and new construction.

But it appears that the LHSBC was never really interested in a rehab plan. The Reminder article goes on to quote LHSBC member Joyal's statement that, "Longmeadow's been pushing this new facility for a while". We know this to be true because the LHSBC committee's initial interview of its three public members included the question, "Do you favor rehab or new construction?".

When approved in Nov. 2009, Scheme 2B, D&C was estimated to cost 63 million dollars. It is now estimated to cost 78 million dollars and even that figure is suspect because it includes only 1.5 million dollars for furnishings and equipment. A more valid guess, at this point, would be the rule of thumb 15 percent of the construction cost, likely about 10 million dollars. Also missing are line items for fees and contingencies. We can only guess at these figures, which LHSBC says are included somewhere in the cost estimate. No line item breakdown summary of cost has ever been posted on their Web site. For the record, when we requested more information about contingencies we were invited to fend for ourselves at Storrs Library.

As part of their inappropriate sales effort, the LHSBC has actively cultivated fear of losing "free" money from Boston and punitive relegation of Longmeadow to the "end of the line" if voters reject Scheme 2B, D&C. They posted on their Web site a document titled, "MSBA Policy Statement", that reads, in part, "However, a failed local vote LIKELY (my emphasis) will result in the school district being required to submit a new Statement of Interest to the MSBA and await a second invitation from MSBA to enter feasibility study phase of the MSBA's process". The Policy Statement goes on to say that the Town would have an opportunity to present a "remedy", for a failed vote, "... and a suggested timeline for such a remedy". Nothing in the statement indicates that an alternate proposal for rehab would not qualify as a favorable remedy.

As MSBA has already demonstrated, by retraction of their rehab study request/approval of Scheme 2B, D&C, a policy is an adopted course of prudent action that is always subject to adaptation and flexibility by the adopting agency. In light of the MSBA initial preference for rehab over new construction, it is not likely that they would now insist on D&C in preference to rehab as a remedy. Nor is it true that rejection of the proposed D&C project by the voters would automatically preclude assistance for the rehab option, or result in arbitrary termination of LHS improvement plans. It is not the purpose or desire of MSBA to erect barriers or to inflict punishment in the name of the Commonwealth.

Before Longmeadow walks off a fiscal cliff to keep up with Wilbraham, the voters must know exactly what they are buying, why they are buying it, how much it really costs, and what the long term ramifications are. As the LHSBC said in its record straightening post, "it is important that the facts about the LHS building project are clearly articulated". Unfortunately, their factual record straitening always seems to need a bit of record straightening. The factual bottom line is that demolition of the existing High School is an ill-advised, fantasy based, wish list of pie in the sky overkill. It is the wrong solution for Longmeadow.

Philip B. Fregeau