Parents and community members listen to a construction update regarding the expansion of the Eliot K-8 School on North Bennet Street. (Photo: Cheryl Russo)

Previously unforeseen asbestos discovery and challenging soil conditions at the North Bennet Street construction site have delayed the expansion of the Eliot K-8 Innovation School until Spring 2017. The announcement made on Thursday night at a public meeting dashed parents hopes that the much needed classroom and lab space would be available for the start of the upcoming school year in September 2016. As a result of the delay, increased enrollment to meet high demand at the Eliot Innovation School will not be possible until the Fall 2017 school year at the earliest.

Brian Melia, the City of Boston’s senior project manager on the renovation and Eliot School Principal Traci Walker-Griffith led the February 25th meeting along with Tommy Welch, Principal Leader overseeing Boston Public Schools (BPS) in East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End. Maria Lanza, the North End liaison to the mayor was in attendance as were staff currently working on the 585 Commercial Street site, parents of children who attend the Eliot School, and community members.

Because of unforeseen soil conditions and the discovery of asbestos, there is now a delay in the project; therefore, the school will not be ready by the original completion date of September 1, 2016. The anticipated completion is now early spring of 2017; no specific date was given. The City and BPS are working to put pressure on the contractor to complete the work as soon as possible.

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Rendering of remodeled building at North Bennet and Salem Streets (BPS)
Rendering of remodeled building at North Bennet and Salem Streets (BPS)

Brian Melia updated the group on the areas of the building currently under construction at the North Bennet Street site:

  • roof (i.e., installation of a new roof including a roof deck)
  • elevator shaft
  • foundation for stair towers
  • removal of soil

Eliot School parents and community members asked how confident city leaders were with the new timeline. Mr. Melia replied that once the roof is on, he would have a better idea of the schedule and will update the community then.

Audience members also asked about the contractor and whether he will be replaced or penalized and whether there is money in the budget to finish the project ahead of the Spring deadline. The response was that there are stipulations in the contract, and that the budget will be reviewed especially if delays are caused by the contractor.

Mr. Melia reiterated that the delays were caused by asbestos found behind a chimney and unanticipated soil conditions; however, participants voiced concern that a contractor working in an old building in Boston’s North End would not have anticipated these issues. A follow-up suggestion was made regarding approaching the contractor about how to mitigate the delay.

When asked about the $18.6 million budget for the project and the potential financial implications of the delay, no information was provided other than plans to set up future meetings to update residents. Other concerns related to whether students would have access to a library, computer and science labs, and an art room. One parent in particular voiced concerns about the impact of this project on the overall integrity of Eliot students’ education.

Eliot Principal Traci Walker-Griffith underscored the need to be transparent with parents and community members with regard to the ongoing work of this project; to that end, a May meeting is being scheduled. There will also be a meeting within a couple of months to update the community on the work of the 585 Commercial Street site. Staff working on that site, including the senior project manager Greg Rideout, were at the meeting and gave a brief update on the construction of that site. The building, which was originally built as a research lab, needs a number of upgrades in order to meet building codes. The update elicited questions from participants regarding the potential use of parts of that space – in particular the third floor – to accommodate current students and possibly new students. The third floor at that site is not being used now because it is in the design phase in preparation for construction. If that floor were to be used, work being done there could be compromised. Moreover, the roof leaks, and there are no toilets on that floor.

When asked about taking new students, Principal Walker-Griffith said that that would not be in the school’s best interest at this time. She wants to be sure that the current space can accommodate students. If, for example, the district says that 25 students can be in a class, but the class size is currently 22, the school will not add three additional students in a temporary space. Due to the temporary arrangement, the school cannot absorb any more students at this point.

Community members urged Tommy Welch and the BPS to support Principal Walker-Griffith during this time. Participants also asked for more transparency from BPS. Mr. Welch assured parents that he is there to support the school, the principal, and is available to answer questions and hear concerns from community members on this project. He mentioned cuts in education, but assured folks that once the budget season is over, more information could be provided by the executive cabinet. Mr. Welch also said that if the spring completion date holds, then the school will have the summer to work with students and decide on whether to take new students in the fall.

Suggestions from community members ranged from ensuring that in the future, key education staff, including Principal Walker-Griffith, are allowed to have input into Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to incorporating incentives into contractors’ agreements that would guarantee that work would be completed by an agreed-upon timeline. Parents asked that additional resources be provided to schools when major construction delays occur.

Principal Walker-Griffith closed the meeting by thanking the community for their support and noting that nine years ago there were 150 kids at the school; now the school is expanding, and the North End community has been instrumental to the school’s growth. She also underscored the need for the group to continue to be engaged. Regarding the construction work, she said, “it’s anxiety-producing, but we’re the Eliot, and we’ll work this out. Thank you for believing in public school.” Once renovations are complete at both the North Bennet Street School buildings and 585 Commercial Street, the Eliot will expand to nearly 900 students.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks to the principal, the Eliot is the best Boston school. What gives us confidence is her not jeopardizing the students’ education by fitting in a few newcomers here and there. She has spoken with conviction that the school cannot absorb any more students at this time.
    The new Eliot is on my path each day, and at times I talk to a worker or two who say that it is a very difficult, often overwhelming project. The school building is taking on its own identity, little by little.

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