HANSON — The Board of Selectmen is asking the Hanson School Repair Committee to resume regular meetings after recently being alerted by a member of the Finance Committee that the Indian Head School playground had been closed. The board, by consensus, supports a new playground project at Indian Head.
The former Maquan and Indian Head Priority Repairs Committee had been renamed and charged to encompass Hanson Middle School in May after votes by Selectmen and the School Department to close Maquan School.
“Due to the age and safety concerns [at] the Indian Head School Playground, it is my recommendation to remove all structures immediately,” Schools Facilities Director Ernest Sandland wrote in a Jan. 23 a letter to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. A copy of the letter had been emailed from to Selectmen Chairman James McGahan and School Committee member Michael Jones on Monday.
“Ernie would like to start the removal of the Indian Head playground structures as soon as possible,” Gilbert-Whitner wrote in her email, asking the board to “Please let us know what we need to do in order to proceed.” Selectmen indicated they needed more information about cost.
Jones and Christopher Howard were members of the repair committee before both were elected to the School Committee.
“I know for a fact that I saw good things come out of that committee,” McGahan. “I’m hoping that we have some parents out there willing to step up — certainly if you have some mechanical or electrical experience, you’d be a valued member on that [repair] board.”
Sandland’s letter advised Gilbert-Whitner that a survey conducted by independent consultant Playground Inspections of New England LLC had determined last November that 70 percent of the playground’s structures do not comply with safety standards. Replacement costs for the playground — estimated at about $96,000 for the structures alone — have been included on the School Department’s capital projects matrix.
A fence would cost an additional $15,000 and rubberized ground cover, if it is desired, would cost about $67,000 more.
The town is not being asked to act on removal, according to Town Administrator Michael McCue, who said he has included a placeholder article for the May Town Meeting to address the new playground.
“My understanding is, this conversation centers on whether or not the Board of Selectmen wishes to be the sounding board for this particular article and supporting this article, vs. the repair committee, which basically hasn’t been meeting,” he said.
He said the School Committee is only asking for the funding to build a new playground.
“I believe they feel that they can facilitate the removal on their own,” McCue said. “I don’t think they’re looking for funding, they’re not looking for approval. I think they have the means, and I don’t think it’s going to cost very much to remove it.”
Safety is the main concern of the survey, which included photos of deteriorating conditions at the structure.
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett suggested the board could vote to support removal, but needed more information on that cost.
“During the inspection/evaluation, it was evident that the structures are old and worn and there were many hazards that would prohibit this structure from being retrofitted,” Sandland wrote. “Temporarily we have placed saw horses and caution tape in this area until the structure is removed.”
Moving the Maquan playground to Indian Head has been ruled out as it would cost about the same as a new one and presents liability issues.
“As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have any choice,” Selectman Kenny Mitchell said. “We have to replace that playground … but I’m not in favor of discontinuing the repair committee.”
Selectman Jim Hickey asked how such issues were addressed before the Priority Repair Committee was formed after the proposed new elementary school was voted down in 2014. Hickey, who now chairs the repair committee, said he would act to get that panel back to meeting.
“Part of the problem was things weren’t being done that we felt should have been,” said McGahan, citing a window at Maquan that had leaked for 10 years. “Before then, I don’t think we were happy with what had been going on.”
Planning Board member John Kemmett suggested the Community Development Commission could be asked for funding to support the project.
“We should have caught this thing well before this happened,” McGahan said of the repair committee. “If we’re closing a school and moving grades to [Indian Head], then goddammit, we should have had the playground ready in advance.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett and Hickey both countered that he has only been working with the repair committee since June and the playground conditions were not surveyed until November.
In other business, Selectmen are seeking one more member for the Maquan Reuse Committee, which currently meets every other week for about an hour, to resolve logistical issues that sometimes surface for current members.
FitzGerald-Kemmett, who chairs the committee, said people with an open mind are being sought because “we’re really going to lay everything out on the table and make a recommendation … on how we should proceed and move forward.”
McGahan said timely completion of that work is needed because insurance costs for an empty building will be more expensive than the $15,000 per month the school district now pays, for the town to insure it until another use is found or it is sold.