Council mulls whether to deal $150,000 to schools for architect

On Tuesday, the Winthrop Town Council held a brief discussion about a proposed plan the appropriate $150,000 to Winthrop Public Schools. The purpose of the funds, should they be approved, will be to allow the School Department to hire an architect to manage planned renovations for Winthrop High School. It is the latest step in the long process that the District must complete in order to gain matching funds for the renovations from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Winthrop High is in need of structural work to make the building handicapped accessible and ensure that the school will maintain its accreditation status with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The NEASC instructed Winthrop Public Schools to upgrade their buildings in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2000, and will make its decennial inspection visit to Winthrop in October of 2010.

Through a list of criteria that includes accreditation needs, the MSBA selects school construction and renovation projects that it assists by providing 50-60% of the total cost of the project through grants and state funding. Not surprisingly, the list of schools seeking MSBA assistance is lengthy, and the MSBA must be kept abreast of each stage of the process for planning construction.

Winthrop formed a School Building Committee in April to proceed with the plans for construction. But the Committee, which includes representatives from the Town Council and School Committee as well as the Town Manager and a few residents with experience in engineering and construction, has met only once, mainly due to the fact that the Town has not had the available funds necessary to hire an architect.

Town Councilor Jim Letterie, who serves on the Committee as well as the Town Council Finance Committee, said that an architect would like charge a fee equal to 1.5 percent of the total cost of the project. The Committee needs at least $150,000 to hire an architect because of the anticipation that it will cost approx $10 million Winthrop High’s most pressing needs, which include improvements to handicapped accessibility and ventilation systems (if WPS elected to accept all of the recommendations made by the MSBA on its visit to Winthrop High last year, the project could cost as much as $26 million).

Thanks to the recent sale of town-owned property on Argyle Street, the Town now has the funds necessary to appropriate $150,000 to WPS to hire an architect. Now that the proposed allocation has been announced, the Council will likely bring up the issue again at its next meeting and could make a final vote on whether or not to allocate the money to the schools as planned, or adjust the amount of the funds and continue the discussion.

There are still questions remaining on exactly how much the Town should give the Schools to hire an architect. Some locals will inevitably argue that the schools should receive more funds so that they can pursue more of the MSBA’s recommendations while their assistance is available, while others will contend that the cash-strapped town has more pressing needs for the funds elsewhere and should allocate a smaller amount to the schools.

“A tough decision has to be made as to how much of that $26 million project we should do, or if there is another idea that would be better in the long term,” said Letterie.

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