By Justin Campfield-Granite State News Collaborative
The $130 million project to remodel two of Nashua’s middle schools and build a a new one is nearing completion — and is “on time and under budget,” according to city and district officials involved in the project.
In 2019, the Nashua Board of Alderman approved the plan to remodel Pennichuck and Fairgrounds middle schools and replace Elm Street Middle School with a new school located off Buckmeadow Road in southwest Nashua. That school has since been named the Brian S. McCarthy Middle School after the former longtime alderman who passed away in 2018.
The remodeling projects at Pennichuck and Fairgrounds have been completed, and students began attending classes at the two schools this fall. It marked the first time in two years that no ongoing construction was taking place in either building.
Students began attending classes at the newly remodeled Pennichuck Middle School this fall. It is one of two middle schools in the city — the other is Fairgrounds Middle School — that have undergone an extensive, two-year renovations.
Nashua School District Superintendent Mario Andrade is pleased with the results.
“At Pennichuck, the new areas, especially the library media center, have just been transformational,” Andrade said. “The additions have really made it feel a lot fresher. Same thing with Fairgrounds. A lot of the work, including the new furniture and HVAC system, has greatly improved the environment in that building as well.”
Andrade added that crucial upgrades at both schools included security features that bring them in line with modern standards.
As for the $93 million McCarthy Middle School, the exterior of the building is largely complete and is expected to be tightened up before winter weather sets in, according to Richard Dowd, a Nashua alderman and chair of the Joint Special School Building Committee that has provided oversight to the project.
With construction crews focusing on the building’s interior over the upcoming winter, Dowd said that barring any unforeseen setbacks, McCarthy is on track to open next fall.
Work is expected to be completed next June with classes beginning in September at the new Brian McCarthy Middle School, a $93 million project that is ‘on time and under budget,’ official say.
“It’s our intent right now to have the building itself complete by approximately June of next year and the school will be opening in September,” Dowd said. “So teachers and administration will have a chance to move in and get accustomed to the school before school starts.”
Down said that, in a time of inflation and skyrocketing building costs, project officials are proud of it being “on time and under budget.” With $31 million left to complete McCarthy, he is optimistic the school can be finished for that amount, if not less.
“Things are going splendidly, so we don’t anticipate spending all of that,” Dowd said. “But you sometimes run into unknown unknowns, and you can’t anticipate too far in advance.”
Planning and luck
While other school districts in the state have seen their school construction costs balloon – the Union Leader reported in July that the proposed cost of a new Rundlett Middle School in Concord has grown from its original estimate of $96 million to $176 million – the Nashua School District was able to control costs largely through a mixture of planning and luck.
“We had done the upfront planning before the pandemic and all of the [resulting] cost increases,” Dowd said. “We knew the materials we needed, and through [our contractor] we were able to go out and procure those materials ahead of time for future delivery. And we were able to get really, really good pricing at that point, and for the most part, the vendors held to those prices.”
As for the lucky part, Superintendent Andrade put it succinctly.
“The timing was on our side,” Andrade said, referring to the district’s ability to lock in material prices before inflation really took off.
Declining student populations
Despite sticking to its original budget and timeline, the project is not without its critics.
Hillsborough County Commissioner and Nashua mayoral candidate Mike Soucy, a former alderman, has expressed opposition to the project both on his website and at public events.
“Over the last decade enrollment has declined an average of 124 students per year,” Soucy wrote on his campaign website. “Our student population continues to decline at about 1.4 percent a year. We could potentially lose 451 to 826 students in the next five years and 800 to 1,835 students in the next 10 years. So I have to ask, why is our school budget continuously going up and why did we bond $118 million to build this monster-size middle school while we are talking about closing schools due to declining student populations?”
In an interview, Soucy said that he is not ready to believe that the project will come in under budget, as has been projected by city and school officials.
“I don’t know of any project that we’ve ever been involved in, city or county, that has come in under budget,” said Soucy, who acknowledged that even if it does it won’t necessarily change his mind about the project. “It’s still $118 million.”
Soucy’s opponent in the mayoral race, incumbent Mayor Jim Donchess, is a strong supporter of the plan.
“Overall, this is a big improvement in the school environment for middle school students,” he said. “I believe that most constituents, most Nashua residents understand its value and agree that having an excellent educational system, including our school facilities, is really important to the city’s future. I think when [McCarthy] opens, the city is going to be very proud of it, and it’s a big step in terms of education in Nashua.”
For his part, Superintendent Andrade says he hasn’t been hearing many criticisms of the project lately.
“Those questions have dissipated, and what I’m hearing more is excitement about the opening of the new school,” Andrade said. “Our buildings are now going to reflect the high expectations of the community around academics and student achievement, and now our three middle schools are going to reflect the teaching and learning of the 21st century moving forward.”
Harvey Construction Photos
This article was produced by The Granite State News Collaborative and shared with its Community Partner as Nashua Digital. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.