Editorial: Saugus is all in

From left, Brody, 5, and Chloe Crabtree, 8, help State Treasurer and Receiver General Deborah Goldberg break ground for the new Saugus Middle-High School. (Spenser R. Hasak)

Saugus broke ground on a new middle-high school on Tuesday and demonstrated there is no turning back for the town when it comes to realizing one of its boldest visions in recent years.

The $160 million grade 6 through 12 school is planned for completion in 2020. Step back and think about that date for a minute. It was only last June when town leaders asked residents to approve debt exclusion proposals to build the middle-high school and to spend $25 million on a district-wide master plan to completely reorganize elementary education in Saugus. More than a quarter of the town’s registered voters went to the polls and they passed the proposals by better than a 2 to 1 margin.

School projects are big ticket undertakings with multi-million dollar price tags requiring state review and sign-off and extensive long-term borrowing by a community. Most cities and towns gingerly submit a single school project to voters and hope and pray arguments in favor of school construction will prevail at the voting booth.

But Saugus has gone all in on a bold project to completely revamp its schools with the town funding a $118 million share of the megaproject to be bonded over 30 years. Replacing the tired-looking high school makes perfect sense, but the ambitious plan for a middle-high school reads like a description for a futuristic college campus. The new building’s design will draw inspiration from the town’s five-century history defined by Saugus Iron Works.

As one of a select group of Massachusetts communities with a National Park Service site within its borders, Saugus is justifiably proud of the Iron Works and the insight into history it provides.

The middle-high school will include a classroom pod structure drawing inspiration from the Iron Works iconic waterwheel. Just as the Iron Works represented cutting-edge 17th century technology, the pods will serve as the learning structures for students not only studying middle and high school core subjects, but also learning about 21st century engineering, technology and science innovations.

In winning voter support for the elementary master plan concept, town leaders received a green light to embark on an elementary school education revamp as bold as any undertaken in Massachusetts. Belmonte Middle School will become an “upper” elementary school and Veterans Memorial will be the “lower” elementary school.

Both existing schools will undergo renovations and upgrades intended, in the words of Town Manager Scott Crabtree, to “transform the way education is valued in this community.” Those words in and by themselves are bold and Crabtree and fellow town leaders are matching them with a vow to use the new and renovated schools as a springboard to propel Saugus from a state Level 3 to a Level 1 school district. Talk about forward thinking and laying it all on the line when it comes to embracing big ideas.

A wholesale modernization of its schools also allows Saugus to undertake a task no one likes to contemplate but everyone knows must be done: Ensuring the places where town children spend their days are secure, hardened, and protected from mass shootings.

Saugus has laid a lot on the line, which is another way of saying town leaders have given armchair critics plenty of ammunition to toss at the middle-high school and master plan project as it takes shape. But there are plenty of reasons to believe the positive aspects of Saugus’ bold step forward will far outweigh the slings and arrows of detractors.

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