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All-new Agawam HS may be project’s cheapest option — at $225M

Date: 9/6/2023

AGAWAM — Building an almost-all-new Agawam High School would deliver a building tailor-made to today’s educational needs without costing much more than complicated renovation plans, designers told a community forum on Aug. 28.

The cost is still substantial, however: about $225 million estimated for new construction, between $231 million and $240 million for the various addition-renovation proposals. Some of that cost would be reimbursed by the state, but Agawam taxpayers would still pick up somewhere between $157 million and $165 million, according to Linda Liporto of LeftField Project Management.

While most of the attendees at the community forum in the library at Agawam High School seemed excited about the chance to replace the 1955 building, town resident Perry Lamkins balked at the price. He noted that the town’s share of the cost will be borrowed, and local taxes will increase to pay back the principal and interest.

Lamkins said the high school at Mill and Cooper streets is in good shape despite its age, and the town should continue to build new wings or renovate existing spaces to address concerns, as it did in 1961, 1979, 1995, 2001 and 2016.

Superintendent Sheila Hoffman said the school is in danger of losing its accreditation because it doesn’t meet modern building codes and because of deficiencies in the science program, which she chalked up to outdated labs in the 1979 science wing.

Lamkins responded that if those are the two problems, Agawam should prepare a renovation plan that addresses those two problems. He compared the comprehensive replacement process to a homeowner knocking down the house instead of making a few simple repairs.

AHS Principal Jim Blain, though, said adding a few classrooms and updating some mechanical systems would only be a temporary solution.

“Living here every day, … our school, from a cursory glance, is bright and clean, but it lacks pretty much everything we envision for your kids’ kids in the next 40 years,” Blain said.

He said the school is designed for the educational practices of the 20th century, with inadequate spaces for today’s teaching styles. He also noted that the long hallways of the one-story building require lengthy transition times between class periods, which reduces time spent learning.

Liporto added that construction costs are rising at a rate of 10% to 12% per year, and the time will come when AHS has to bring its building up to code. It would be better to do the project now, at today’s prices and with state reimbursement, than face even more expensive work in the future, she said.

Liporto said the Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to work with Agawam on this project, and she expects the agency to reimburse between 25% and 45% of the costs. She said MSBA has several percentage or square footage reimbursement caps for various categories of spending, and until the detailed plans are drawn and contractors’ bids are awarded, it is not possible to predict an accurate reimbursement figure.

For example, site work costs are capped at 8% of reimbursable spending, even though in most school projects this category accounts for a much higher share of the total cost. She said this project will benefit, in terms of reimbursement, from the fact that it will have lower-than-typical spending on athletic fields, since the tennis courts, football stadium and baseball field were already renovated in the mid-2010s and will not be touched during new AHS construction.

One substantial cost that would not be reimbursed at all is temporary classrooms, which Agawam would need to purchase as “swing space” during a renovation project, but not for the new-construction projects proposed by Flansburgh Architects, the town’s selected designer. Modular classroom units could add $5 million to $10 million to the project cost. Having to build in phases also adds to the construction time, the consultants said.

Kent Kovacs, an architect at Flansburgh, said it’s too early in the design process to make detailed floor plans — “that’s the next phase” — but did share rough schematics of how the rooms would be arranged.

All of the proposals — three new-build options and four addition-renovation options — start with the idea of an “academic wing” consisting mostly of classrooms and a “community wing” housing the main office, gym and auditorium. Kovacs said this separation would keep the classrooms secure while public arts and sporting events are taking place.

In the new-build options, classrooms are clustered in pods of four or five academic rooms, one or two science labs, a special education room and in most cases a media or “maker” room.

In describing the various renovation models, Kovacs noted how the pod vision is compromised to differing extents, as classrooms are instead lined up along straight corridors, as in the current AHS.

Flansburgh prepared three new-build options, labeled 1A, 1B and 1C. Option 1A has the advantage of being sited entirely off the existing building’s footprint, but Kovacs said “it’s a little shoehorned into the site,” taking over space currently occupied by a soccer field and softball fields, very close to the football stadium and tennis courts.

Options 1B and 1C both overlap the current gym wing, though with phased construction the school will not have to interrupt or relocate its gym classes and sports home games, Kovacs said. He said parents and teachers who have seen the proposed site plans seem to favor Option 1C, which introduces a large fenced courtyard between the two wings.

The renovation plans are split into two groups: options 2A and 2B, which feature a split of 69% new construction and 31% renovation of existing space, and options 3A and 3B, both of which are 55% new and 45% renovated.

Option 2A updates the existing gym wing as the new community wing. Option 2B turns it into an auditorium and arts suite, and moves the gym into the new-construction academic wing. This breaks up the “community wing” concept but would allow continuous access to a gym during construction, which Kovacs said parents and teachers identified as important for the school, since there is no other gym in town that meets the requirements to host varsity games.

Unlike the first five options, options 3A and 3B reuse some of the current school’s academic wings, and even the new-construction portions abandon the classroom pod concept.

Liporto said this plan “really, educationally speaking, just doesn’t work.”

All of the new-build and addition-renovation options include building a new Early Childhood Center on the AHS campus, mostly by reusing part of the high school’s existing technical education wing. Having the town’s pre-kindergarten programs nearby will make it easier for high schoolers studying for a career in early education to intern there. It also solves the longstanding question of how to replace the cramped and outdated Perry Lane Park preschool building without breaking the bank.

“Making it part of this project brings the price tag way down for that new ECC,” Hoffman said.

The design team and the local School Building Committee will continue to look at Flansburgh’s design options. Future community forums are slated for Sept. 28 and Oct. 17, both 6-7:30 p.m. in the high school library at 760 Cooper St., Agawam.

In October, the design team will submit preferred options to MSBA, which must include a new-construction option, an addition-renovation option, and the default option of making the upgrades required by building code only. Liporto said the code-upgrade option accomplishes none of the educational goals of the project, does not qualify for reimbursement, and would still cost about $154 million.

If the project continues on schedule, MSBA would give its final approval in June 2024 and construction could then begin. Construction of the new-build options is expected to take 34 months. Addition-renovation work, which requires extensive phasing, would take 40-42 months.