The Andover High School Building Committee approved a preliminary plan for a new high school Thursday, despite strong opposition from a longtime activist for accessibility in Andover schools and questions from one of its own board members.

“This project is a 50-50 vote, at best, right now,” Carlene Bell-Flanagan said at Thursday’s meeting, when the committee narrowed the choices for new construction from two to one. “I will be very vocal — I will not vote for another Prop Two-and-a-Half override for a building where every student does not have access. It’s got to go beyond code in every way.”

Later in the meeting, the committee made its final recommendations for the designs to move forward to preliminary design and pricing. The first plan the committee will price out would renovate and repair the Andover High School and Collins Center and create a courtyard between the existing school and the addition.

The other would build the new, campus-style school. Pricing will include various options, including replacing the Collins Center with a new auditorium and a parking garage that would add about three acres of open space to the campus. The committee has signaled since it started meeting last summer that it prefers new construction over a renovation.

Have thoughts on this or other issues related to the efforts to replace Andover High School? Leave a comment on this post below or send a letter to the editor.

It’s the new construction plan that Bell-Flanagan, whose son uses canes and is a student at AHS, opposes. She did not attend the building committee’s community forum on Feb. 6, but after the forum her “phone blew up.” Several forum attendees told her they were concerned with the campus layout — a point that was not mentioned when the committee recapped the forum earlier in the Feb. 8 meeting..

“I’m disappointed and concerned about some of the considerations around accessibility,” Bell-Flanagan said. “We’re not a college campus — it’s attractive, and we want to offer everything a college campus does. But at the end of the day, we are a high school, a high school where every student deserves an accessible, least-restrictive education.”

Architects and construction managers told Bell-Flanagan the designs were preliminary, and more detailed designs may alleviate her concerns.

Building Committee: Both Designs Would ‘Meet Code’

Bell-Flanagan and building committee member Nancy Kimelman, who abstained when the committee approved the campus plan with an 8-0 vote, said the preliminary campus layout created long distances for students to cover to get to their classes. Especially concerning was the time it would take for students to move from the main building to the Field House, which would be kept under both plans.

The facade of the new building would be over 600 feet and be four stories tall. Bell-Flanagan also took exception to a chart the committee reviewed at the meeting that listed which design for new construction was a better option in a wide range of categories.

For example, between the stand-alone building and the campus design the committee ultimately chose, the campus design construction will have a bigger impact on education at the existing high school, according to an analysis by architects. On most other points, including education space, parking and building amenities, the two plans were mostly equal.

Accessibility was not one of the items evaluated between the two designs on the chart.

“If you have time to make a.comparison of parking, athletics and all these other things, you can make a comparison about accessibility,” Bell-Flanagan said. “To hear the comment ‘It will meet code’ — well, of course it will. I, as a taxpayer, want best practices.”

Committee Says Forum Attendees Want New Construction

Attendees at the building committee’s Feb. 6 community forum overwhelmingly favored new construction over renovation for the high school. The committee asked the 40 or so attendees to place “red dot” stickers on the plan they preferred, with 24 favoring a campus layout and replacing Collins Center with a new high school auditorium, while just four favored renovation.

Only three attendees favored new construction that keeps the Collins Center. The committee also collected written comments from attendees. Among some that Building Committee Chair Mark Johnson shared at the start of the building committee’s Feb. 8 meeting:

  • “New construction is very important to me. No student should have to live their entire career in a renovation zone.
  • “Open campus vs. standalone: We need to acknowledge we live in New England, and it’s too far to walk in frigid weather.”
  • “Worried about four floors divided by grades — lots of stairs.”
  • “Parking garage is a major issue…may be hazardous for new drivers.”
  • “Make Moraine Street bigger to accommodate traffic.”
  • “Stay away from turf fields — too injury prone.”
  • “Tennis courts on top of roof? How can I watch my kid play? Tennis balls flying off roof — sorry, no fence is tall enough.”

The school’s current enrollment is 1,709 students, and a 2017 demographic study suggested the town should aim to build a high school for 1,900 students. Under current guidelines from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the existing school only has enough space for 1,400 students.

The current high school was designed for 1,200 students in grades 10-12 and opened along with Dunn Gym in 1968. The Collins Center was added in 1983. The last significant renovation came in 1995, when the science wing and field house were added, and the school was expanded to include ninth graders. AHS is just one of three high schools in Essex County that has not been replaced or had major renovations in the past 25 years.

Both plans being sent for pricing would keep the field house but demolish the science wing. A replacement or renovation could increase the size of the school by as much as 60.5 percent, according to preliminary schematics.

Tentative Timeline

On Monday, the select board approved the building committee’s timeline through May for bringing a proposal for renovating or replacing Andover High School to Special Town Meeting within a year. The Andover School Committee will also review the timeline.

Barring setbacks or delays, a special town meeting would be asked to approve an override to borrow money for the school next January, with site work beginning shortly after final approval. While the project — which is moving forward without state funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority –would be the most expensive taxpayers have been asked to approve in Andover’s history, preliminary cost estimates will not be available until late March.

Once approved, construction of a new school would take approximately two to three years.

Key dates moving forward include:

  • March 23: Preliminary cost estimates presented to Andover High School Building Committee.
  • April 27: Building committee chooses to recommend renovation or new construction.
  • May 2023: Select board and school committee asked to approve building committee’s recommendation.
  • May 2023: Town Meeting asked to approve schematic design funds.
  • September or October 2023: Cost estimates performed.
  • Jan. 2024: Special Town Meeting asked to approve construction funding.

Photo: Carlene Bell-Flanagan (standing) addresses the Andover High School Building Committee at its Feb. 8 meeting.

3 thoughts on “New HS Design Raises Accessibility Concerns”
  1. Note that the Select Board only approved the proposed schedule through May, up to May 2023 Town Meeting. After deliberation, they specifically did not approve the entire proposed schedule all the way to the envisioned January 2024 “funding” Special Town Meeting. This Select Board approval request by the SBC was a ploy to build momentum, anyway, since funding for the next step of the project is already an on the Town Meeting warrant.

    Still problematic, in addition to the accessibility concerns raised by Ms. Bell-Flanagan, light/traffic/noise concerns raised by nearby residents, and the fact that there is still not even a first rough cost estimate for what will be the biggest financial commitment ever made by the Town, is that the SBC tail is wagging the Town dog. At the May 2023 Town Meeting, we will be asked to approve $1.3M for schematic design when, according to the SBC schedule presented, neither School Board nor Select Board will by that time have approved which of the build options to carry forward. So we will be being asked to sign a big check for detailing a design for one school alternative before even knowing which alternative will be approved!

    There is broad agreement that we need a new high school, but best would be to slow down and get it right. Delaying a year or two might incur some relatively-small architect hold or restart costs, but those likely would be far offset by interest savings on on the massive debt we will incur to build this school without state support, since interest rates are widely expected to be lower a couple of years from now. Pushing out a couple of years would also give some time to begin digesting the huge Pension Obligation Bond and West Elementary debts we have already approved, the effects of which are not yet fully reflected in property tax bills.

    1. Thanks for catching my mistake (again), Kevin. Story has been corrected with a link to the story about the building committee’s appearance before the select board on Monday.

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