As City moves on master plan, asbestos extends school closure
11/22/23 UPDATE: After this story was published, Somerville Public Schools Communications Director, Jackie Piques, reached out to the Somerville Wire to make multiple corrections. When Director of Infrastructure and Assets Management Rich Raiche stated the City decided to close the building after discovering asbestos, he meant closing the building to staff and inspectors in August. Raiche was not referring to the estimated 5-year closure of the building to students, which was decided in light of the planned construction and/or demolition of the Sycamore Street building. Additionally, workers who tended to the Winter Hill building after asbestos were not from the State’s Department of Environmental Protection, but contractors and a third-party hygienist who carried out work in accordance with DEP regulations. Lastly, the asbestos in the window caulking of the Edgerly was not discovered during the summer, as this article originally stated. It was identified in an October 2021 study Raiche mentioned was conducted before SPS moved in. The work to treat the asbestos was more disruptive to students than expected, causing summer programming to end three days early.
(Somerville Wire) – Inspectors were “literally hammering the walls” of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School this summer when they discovered some portions of concrete contained asbestos, Department of Infrastructure and Asset Management Director Rich Raiche explained. The Winter Hill school closed in June after a piece of concrete fell from a stairwell ceiling. Now, officials expect Winter Hill students will remain at the Edgerly Building for at least five more years as the City works through its K-8 Master Plan. At a Community Meeting Thursday night, city and school officials provided more information on hazardous materials and master plan progress.
The City’s assessment of Winter Hill found the building was structurally sound, despite years of water damage. But asbestos will keep students from returning anytime soon. “That’s what led us to close the building out of an abundance of caution,” Raiche said.
Upon further testing, the team found any airborne release from the inspectors’ hammers while testing was insignificant. The surface-level asbestos was also limited to covered areas of stairwells and some columns. None of the walls throughout the building contained asbestos on the surface.
Most buildings of this era contain hazardous materials, Raiche explained, but finding asbestos in portions of concrete is rare. After concluding there was no immediate threat, the Department of Environmental Protections worked with specialty contractors to test dust throughout the building, remove contaminated concrete, and apply epoxy coatings to dangerous areas.
Asbestos was also present at the Edgerly Building. The City knew that from an October 2021 study conducted before Somerville Public Schools administration moved into the building. But in August of this year, news arrived that the City found non-friable asbestos in the window caulking. Experts said there was a low chance of a health risk, but summer programming was canceled. Again, the DEP and contractors were called to collect air samples. Tests were negative.
While the City prepares the Edgerly for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, it’s also moving through its K-8 master plan. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is further reviewing a statement of interest to redevelop the Winter Hill School. The City also applied for the Benjamin G. Brown School, a similarly outdated building, but that has not moved forward, according to Melissa Woods, director of capital projects.
Members of the MSBA toured the Winter Hill school in September of 2023. The City expects a decision from MSBA in December. Regardless of the decision, the City is able to fund the feasibility study and schematic design. MSBA funding will go toward a detailed design and construction.
But Somerville needs the support of voters too. Finance Director Ed Bean explained the project will require an override of Proposition 2½, which caps the amount of revenue municipalities can raise for operations. The City successfully overrode the proposition to build its high school, but that was a different time.
“I think we’re paying $6 million a year under the debt exclusion for the high school at that rate of 2.03%. What’s transpired here, as we all know, is interest rates have been going up dramatically in the economy. So we are not going to be able to borrow at that same low interest rate. Our financial advisors are telling us it’s going to be about 5%. That’s more than double the rate that we borrowed for the new high school building. So this is significant and we need to plan this thing out appropriately,” Bean said.
But prior to construction cost is the question of what to build and where. The City is still undecided on the Winter Hill school’s location: whether it will be redeveloped at its Sycamore Street location or elsewhere. The City is still analyzing an enrollment study that will help inform the district-wide need for space and programming.
Somerville’s K-8 Master Plan will be presented December 5, but meeting details have not been released.
Superintendent Ruben Carmona explained the Master Plan will balance the needs of the Winter Hill School and the district as a whole. “And as Mr. Bean said, what we have to keep an eye on to maximize the return on investment. And also we need to provide a thoughtful and very articulate plan for the community,” Carmona said.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire