On August 30, Lexington High School students will enter an aging, overcrowded building for yet another school year.
The current building, which opened in 1953, was originally designed for 1,850 students. It now serves more than 2,300.
Lexington has known it was time for an upgrade since at least 2008, when a New England Association of Schools and Colleges report declared that LHS “Does Not Meet the Standard” because of sewage seeping up through the floor in the workout room, inadequate ventilation of the science labs, an insufficient HVAC system in the auditorium, and limited cafeteria space and athletic fields (the issues with sewage and ventilation have been addressed, thankfully, but other problems remain).
The building is so crowded that “you can not walk through (the hallways) without elbowing several people,” said Aditi Swamy, an LHS grad and former student representative on the Lexington School Committee.
“We just educate students differently than we did when the high school was built,” said Kathleen Lenihan, the School Building Committee chair and a member of the School Committee. “The science classrooms are simply not what you have in the 21st century, and there are a whole lot of students who years and years ago weren’t included in general education — students who had special needs weren’t included on a whole bunch of levels.”
But the project of envisioning, funding, designing and building a new high school is enormous, and can sometimes feel like it’s moving at a glacial pace. Students, staff, parents and community members were first invited to share their thoughts about what they’d like to see in a new building back in 2017, and town and community leaders have been working to make this vision a reality ever since then.
A major milestone was achieved this past March, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which helps fund sustainable and efficient public school buildings in the state, finally voted to invite Lexington to conduct a feasibility study for a new or updated high school, which means that — if all goes well — the town can expect substantial financial assistance from the state. This was the third time that Lexington had submitted a proposal for a new school building. Lenihan thinks the overcrowded nature of the school due to a “constant upward trajectory” in enrollment is what “really tipped it” and got the acceptance from the MSBA.
On July 3, the School Building Committee released an update revealing that Dore & Whittier has been chosen as the firm contracted to manage the design, engineering, and construction, known as the OPM. The company also served as OPM for the new Hastings Elementary School building.
Assuming an entirely new building is determined to be the best path forward, the project is projected to cost at least $400 million dollars, and MSBA is expected to cover about 25% of the costs. Renovations to the current building are another possibility to explore in the feasibility study. But Joe Pato, a member of both the School Building Committee and the Select Board, said the current classroom sizes and the nature of the existing four-building open-plan design make a renovation difficult. “My guess is that it will be found to be not as efficient to renovate. But I don’t want to presume that,” Pato said. Without construction of a new building, repairs and replacements for outdated systems would cost approximately $130 million in capital expenses over the next decade, according to the School Building Committee.
Current high school students will likely never attend a class in the much-anticipated new building — according to a draft timeline, construction is expected to begin in 2027 and end in 2029.
In the meantime, steps are being taken to ensure that the existing school building provides a suitable learning environment.
A major issue is the size of the cafeteria. “We’re not supposed to eat in the hallways, but sometimes there’s just not enough space, and students end up eating in the hallways,” Swamy said. Lenihan suggested adding more grab-and-go options and outdoor tents in nice weather as possible solutions that have been used in the past.
Another problem is that, because the current school is made up of four separate buildings, “heating and ventilation is not standard across the buildings,” said Grace Ou, a former student representative to the committee.
Lenihan described the HVAC as “well past its lifespan,” so the public facilities teams in the short term are “praying that you can get all the parts you need and praying that something doesn’t break that you can’t fix.”
“We’re not making more space,” said Interim Principal of Lexington High School, Andrew Baker. “They have to think about every dollar that they’re pouring into the school now that could be demolished in five years.”
Next steps for the new building project include forming a project team, conducting the feasibility study and having that approved by MSBA, followed by a funding approval process and design work – all before a shovel is lifted.
“I don’t think anyone expects the school building to be built in two years,” said Swamy. “People are excited for the most part, especially those with younger siblings who may end up actually getting to use the newer high school.”
To stay updated with the school building process, visit https://www.lhsproject.lexingtonma.org/.