OCTOBER SURPRISE: Town Eying Estimated $5 Million ‘Limited Renovation’ Of Wildwood School, Would Move Students Back In For 5-7 Years Until New School Built

WILMINGTON, MA — The Wildwood Building Committee met on Monday, October 3, 2022 to discuss options — with price tags — on how to house the Wildwood Early Childhood Center’s student population over the next 5-7 years before a hypothetical new school is opened.

The town’s project consultants — Dore and Whittier Architects — had previously whittled down 16 options down to 8, and announced these options to the Building Committee at its September 20 meeting. The options were later reduced from 8 to 7 after a suitable commercial site around town could not be identified to temporarily replace the Wildwood.

The costs of each option were then studied by the consultants and first revealed to the Committee in a report at its October 4 meeting.

The cost estimates — ranging from $5.3 million to $17.8 million — were jarring to both the consultants and the committee.

Cost Estimate

Cost Drivers

Sticker Shock

“I want to apologize for nearly falling back in my chair when this cost slide came up. Option #1 is the only viable option at this point,” responded Selectman Greg Bendel. “The other numbers really concern me. Six weeks out from a Special Town Meeting where residents will decide over $50 million worth of projects. If folks are watching this meeting, they’re concerned that we could spending $10 million, $15 million or $17 million, in addition to what they’re going to be asked for in six weeks.”

“$17 million?. $16 million? $15 million? It’s just not doable. It’s just not,” agreed Finance Committee member Marianne Gallezzo. “A new Senior Center is going to be cheaper to build from the ground up. My opinion is Option 1. And I think we should explore it further, to get the cost down…. These other dollar amounts — it’s just not going to happen.”

“When I saw some of these prices, I thought this is crazy,” added Public Buildings Superintendent George Hooper. “Let’s see if we can do things to bring the Wildwood up to a certain condition that will last five years, without having to overreach.”

“I certainly cannot agree more. I don’t even know how to describe these numbers. They were beyond what we anticipated. When we began conversations, the consultants were shocked. This is just impossible to wrap one’s head around it,” concurred School Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand. “It’s almost impossible to think about investing any money into the Wildwood. But we’re in a bind. Where we’re at right now — Wildwood students spread across three schools — is also not sustainable for the next 5, 6 or 7 years… If we can figure out a way to safely and comfortably bring back the Wildwood in one location, I think that’s going to be best for them for the  next 5-7 years.”

“My initial thought [before the study] was it doesn’t make any sense to put money into Wildwood. We did think it would be cost effective to add a couple of modulars to some of the schools. That’s where I thought this would end up. We thought [the limited Wildwood renovation] would have the highest cost,” noted consultant Lee Dore. “This exercise has changed my perception of when we first started. Now, the only thing that makes sense is honing in on Wildwood. I think everyone here is saying that’s probably the right solution, and that we want to minimize the investment.”

Perception Problem?

Some of the committee members, consultants and members of the public acknowledged a potential perception problem with asking students and staff to return to the Wildwood Early Childhood Center for another 5-7 years.

“There may be a perception issue with staff, students and parents. There are lots of options for parents and staff if you’re going to house them somewhere for 7 years where they don’t want to be,” cautioned Dore.

“The perception of the asbestos issue looms large. I categorially would say the town has consistently maintained the building to a point that people haven’t been endangered. The encapsulant is doing what it’s intended to do,” Town Manager Jeff Hull later added. “Not withstanding that, it doesn’t erase what appears to be a sustained perception the building is not safe because of the asbestos.”

Permanent Building Committee member Diane Allan asked Brand to survey teachers and staff to gauge their comfort level of returning to the Wildwood for 5-7 years. Brand agreed to do so.

School Committee member Melissa Plowman, who was in the audience, pointed out that the Committee did not even discuss any of the other 6 options, and expressed concerns over teacher perception, parent perception, teacher retention and student retention, and the perception that board could be “cutting corners” by looking to reduce the already “bare bones” renovation of the Wildwood building.

“I don’t want to be so blindsided by the numbers that we’re not giving each of the other options a good look,” said Plowman, who wondered whether the town could purchase modulars for this project and then re-use them for future projects.

Wilmington parent and PAWS Committee member Jennifer Binell, who was also in the audience, expressed a concern about the perception that the Town of Wilmington may be seen as not willing to invest in its schools and provide its teachers with a safe working environment. Binell wondered if the town could purchase the modulars and then sell them when no longer needed to recoup much of its initial investment.

“Modulars are really hard to find at the moment. And building new is crazy expensive. Some of these numbers were surprising to us. You’re going to have to look wide and far for them,” Dore noted earlier in the meeting, who noted the base cost for the modular unit is $325 per square foot, plus costs associated with establishing foundations and hooking up utilities.

Finding The Right Balance!

The project’s consultants agreed to sit down with the Town’s Building Inspector to clarify just how much renovation work can be down to the building without code-mandated triggers that would require costly handicap accessible upgrades and the installation of a sprinkler system.

“As soon as we start investing money and altering the school, we open ourselves up to bringing those buildings up to current building code,” stressed Dore. “It’s a balancing act for the school committee — minimizing the cost, but making enough investments where it’s palatable to staff and community to be in there on an interim basis. That’s the balance.”

The $5.3 million assumes those triggers will be reached, based on the scale of the renovation needed, which includes a new heating system and significant ceiling work involving the possible installation of a drop ceiling to help remediate the asbestos and cover up the alarming looking encapsulate (‘popcorn ceiling’).

The Wildwood Building Committee will make a formal recommendation to the School Committee later this month. No Building Committee member spoke in support of any of the 7 options aside from the limited Wildwood renovation (Option 1). The School Committee will then consider and vote on its preferred option, which would be incorporate into the town’s FY24 capital budget. The budget would be voted on at the April 2023 Annual Town Meeting.

If approved at Annual Town Meeting, and the process goes along at a normal speed, the renovated Wildwood would be ready to occupy in 12-17 months, sometime between April 2024 and August 2024.

The Wildwood Building Committee will likely next meet on either October 20, 2021 or October 21, 2021, pending the finalization of the School Committee’s meeting schedule.

Watch the October 3 Building Committee Meeting, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, HERE.

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