Building Schools is the “In” Thing

Sean McKeown

Is building schools a hot new thing for the Town of Franklin and the surrounding areas? We have seen, as of late, schools being put up everywhere. Some seem like good ideas because of population growth and others seem like bad ideas. Franklin is interested in building a new school to replace the high school and needs the registered voters’ help to pass it. I went out to research what seemed like a controversial topic.

As a Franklin High School senior, I have seen from a student’s perspective, what the school looks like. When I walk around the school I feel completely safe. The building is structurally sound and that’s what matters. There aren’t too many visible problems. Most of what I see is just worn down and in poor condition equipment, floors, etc. Are those things fixable? They should be.

Tell me I’m wrong. I went into this investigation with numerous questions on the credibility of how the school got to the condition it is in. It should concern a lot of people that this building only lasted 40 years. Fiscal responsibility was a major question I had going into this. When a building is built, the responsible thing to do is to take care of it. If it costs a million dollars a year, then that’s how much it costs. Ask any business man if they would purchase a building that had a life expectancy of only 40 years. The response is an obvious “no” because that’s a bad investment. There are many buildings that last far longer than 40 years.

Mike D’Angelo, the Director of Facilities, is in charge of buildings in Franklin. I was curious to find out the financial aspects of building the school, so I called him up for an interview.

Mr. D’ Angelo said that a major reason why we should take advantage of this deal that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is giving us is it “would make use of state dollars so the town wouldn’t have to pay the total amount.”

The MSBA would pay roughly 52% of the cost of the total school which is expected to cost $98 million.

The cost of building a new school is subject to change. This could be a problem as we have seen how other towns experience the cost of their new schools increase dramatically, even double, during the project. Also, just because the town doesn’t have to pay for all of it doesn’t mean we don’t. The MSBA, which is funded by the state, is paying for the other part, so either way the taxpayers pay the price.

People want to know why the Town of Franklin didn’t pay the cost to maintain the building so that it wouldn’t be put on “Warning Status” by the New England Association for Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

Mr. D’ Angelo told me, “A lot of the ongoing maintenance is hard to do in a school when it’s occupied.”

To be fair, the pavement, windows and other internal replacements were completed early on before the 2005 NEASC report. It still didn’t stop the committee from noting “The school site, plant and equipment do not support and enhance all aspects of the educational program.”

Some of the things that are problems with the school include poorly equipped science laboratories, no handicap access to the academic wings, as well as the presence of hazardous materials.

Could the roof of the Field House have been fixed? Roofs have a life expectancy; these are one of the things that should be responsibly taken care of with town resources. How about the science labs? Could the labs have been maintained so they wouldn’t become outdated and be in “poor physical condition”?

My next step in my investigation brought me to the office of Franklin High School Principal Peter Light. Mr. Light tried to help answer my questions through a “student perspective”. He told me that FHS is a cinder block/concrete building. This means that the systems are embedded inside the walls and that it would be a difficult and expensive process to replace them. I don’t know if it really is an arduous process because HVAC and other system maintenance isn’t my expertise.

One of the arguments for not taking care of the school was that the financial obligations of the town were aimed at keeping teachers during the tough budget cuts. So I guess buying all the new technology like SMART boards were more important too. Why are SMART boards incorporated in the budget in a hard economic time? As a nation that spends tons of money on education it doesn’t seem to affect the standing of our students compared to other countries. Could it be the improper use of money?

It’s been a popular thing as of late with the building of two new middle/elementary schools and the addition/renovation to the Horace Mann Middle School. Is building a new high school just the hot idea of “now it’s the high school’s turn to get a new school”? Remember Davis Thayer Elementary School? That was built in 1924 so let’s not forget buildings can last a long time.

Mr. Light stressed the positives of how the school would affect the town.

He told me that “the quality of education could offer a lot more than we currently have”.

The Principal also stated that the building would have “community appeal because of it’s accessibility to the people”. For instance people who like walking the track would be able to go upstairs or up the elevator (something the current school needs) to exercise.

My investigation ended with more questions needed to be answered than I originally began with. The biggest question being how can we be assured that if the registered voters decide in favor of a new school that the building will last? The Town of Franklin can’t afford to buy a new high school every 40 years.

Mr. Light told me that the “Intent is for the building to last 50-80 years” and that it would be easier for the systems to be maintained since it’s a steel building.

Let’s not forget that the current high school was meant to last much longer than 40 years as well. So how genuine is it that we can maintain a new high school better than the current one?

Many more questions are needed to be answered. There are genuine and valid reasons that we need to build a new school. My investigation ends with a continued question of fiscal management. Hopefully come time to vote on this, the registered voters of Franklin will have a clear idea of what to choose.