Board, Residents Debate Future of Hampton Academy

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Decision on Renovating or Building New School Mulled

By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Friday, April 6, 2012

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON -- A majority of residents who attended Wednesday night's community forum urged the town's School Board to renovate Hampton Academy rather than build a new school on Towle Farm Road.

But School Board members told the crowd of about a dozen people they are not yet convinced about which direction to go and have no timetable for making a final decision.

"We have a lot to talk about as a board," said School Board Chairwoman Charlotte "Peppa" Ring.

SAU 90 Superintendent Kathleen Murphy said there is no rush. Murphy said there will be no warrant article in 2013 to build or renovate the school, though it is possible voters could be asked next year to approve money to create a design.

"The board needs to take all this information (from both public hearings) and they now need a chance to deliberate," Murphy said.

Renovating the existing building with an addition is estimated to cost $26 million, while constructing a new middle school is projected to cost $28 million. New Hampshire lawmakers are currently working on legislation that could restore state school building aid in 2013. The state currently has a moratorium on school building aid.

Those who support renovating Hampton Academy point to its history and central location. Proponents of building a new school said there would be additional land for fields and a new building that fits the needs of the 21st century.

Everyone seemed to agree that upgrades are needed for the middle school.

"I don't think there is anyone who feels for one minute that this building is not in dire need of being fixed," said Hampton resident and state Rep. Fred Rice. "Doing nothing is not an option."

Rice said he favors renovation over building a new school.

The board has been looking at the issue for more than five years through various studies and committees.

The current middle school, which was constructed in 1939, has serious ventilation problems, doesn't meet fire code including not being sprinkled and doesn't meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to one study done on the building by an architecture and engineering firm.

A second study conducted last year also shows the current facility does not have adequate space according to the standards set by the state Department of Education.

One resident who attended the forum pushed the board to make a decision, noting that a prior committee in 2008 decided in favor of renovating the existing school.

Board member Maureen O'Leary, who sat on that committee, said she still hasn't made up her mind, even though she previously opposed renovating.

"As of right now, I'm not leaning (in a direction)," O'Leary said. "I have a lot of questions for both."

Opponents of building a new school raised concerns about traffic on Towle Farm Road.

The 30-acre property off Towle Farm Road was donated to the school department some time ago. It was once earmarked to be the location for a Grade K-5 school, but a decision was made at the time to instead renovate Centre School and Marston School.

"Maybe we have to look at a traffic study on Towle Farm Road," Ring said.

Renovating the current facility would not leave enough space for fields, according to the state Department of Education. However, Murphy said, the district could get a waiver on the fields requirement because of Hampton Academy's proximity to Tuck Field. Another suggestion was using or buying town-owned land where an old courthouse is located on Winnacunnet Road for field space.

Board member Art Gopalan said it's going to be a difficult decision.

"We need time to talk, not just about just the building, but how the face of education is going to change in the next 15 years," Gopalan said. Whatever is done, needs to last 50 to 60 years, he said.

Gopalan said education is changing toward a "blended learning approach," which combines face-to-face teaching with computer-mediated activities.

"We need to build (or renovate) a school that can change and be flexible with the times," he said.

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