Affordable housing, a new school or something else? What’s next for the Coffin School?

Town and school leaders are debating the fate of the Coffin School property on Turner Road. Built in 1948, Coffin closed in October 2021, and neighborhood students moved to the new Brown School on Baldwin Road. Initial discussions were that Coffin would be sold to a developer to create affordable housing. 

The Coffin School was built in 1948 with an annex added in 1962. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

It is the School Committee’s authority to determine if the Coffin property no longer has any educational use and should be handed over to the town. Until that happens, the town cannot move forward with plans to sell it.

In recent meetings, School Committee Chair Sarah Fox spoke about demolishing the school and possibly holding onto the property.

“Whether we sell it for affordable housing or retain it for possible school use purposes, whatever happens, that building is a problem,” Fox said at a meeting of the School Committee’s facilities subcommittee on Sept. 21.

Fox made the case again at a School Committee meeting that evening, saying the Coffin building will depreciate the property’s value, if the town decides to sell it. The total assessed value for
the property in 2021 was $2,858,100 ($1,098,900 of which is for the land).

The demolition would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta said the only way to fund that is to repurpose remaining funds from the Brown School project. That money, while already approved, was never borrowed and would need a new Town Meeting vote this May to be used for a demolition.

Select Board Chair Erin Noonan told the Current that she doesn’t believe taxpayers should have to foot the bill for the demolition.

“It would be unusual for a municipality to get into the business of demolishing a property,” she said at a Sept. 26 meeting of the Housing Production Plan Implementation Committee, which she chairs. “That can be absorbed into the discussion of the sales price.”

Kurt James, who sits on the HPPIC, said developers may prefer the three-acre property with the school building still there.

“The building is over 50 years old. The developer would be entitled to federal and state tax credits,” he said. “That might be millions of dollars.”

He added,The neighbors indicated that they wanted to preserve the building”

‘Bursting at the seams’

Fox believes the Coffin property may be needed some day for a new school.

“We’re already, believe it or not, bursting at the seams in some of our buildings,” she said. “Especially in a town like Marblehead, where land is king, there is no additional land. We all know that. 

She continued, “If we give up this land in the north end of town, and we need to bring another facility on line, we’re not putting anything in the neighborhood north end of town, which I think is really unfair to them. The idea that we’d be putting kids on buses and busing them to what would become a four-story elementary school (Brown) is very educationally inappropriate and inequitable.”

Fox added that she’s spoken with neighbors who don’t want the property sold.

“I’ve heard from several people in that part of the town that they’d like the building retained… for educational purposes,” Fox said. “They loved the idea of turning it into green space in the interim.”

Noonan said Marblehead “doesn’t need three elementary schools” but does need more housing, especially for seniors and young families. She pointed out that the median home value in town is now $1.1 million, making it difficult for seniors and young families to afford to live in town.

“MSBA [the Massachusetts School Building Authority] is not interested in funding an elementary school at that location,” Noonan said. “We just went through that process [for the Brown School]. It’s kind of inconceivable to me, but within the next decade or so if we have some need, which I can’t imagine because we just went through this process, it wouldn’t be something eligible for MSBA funding. So whatever [school] goes on that property would have to be funded 100% by taxpayers.”

Select Bard member Moses Grader praised Noonan for addressing the Coffin issue wit the School Committee.

“I’m kind of surprised that the School Committee hasn’t given us an indication of if they’re going to use it and in what capacity We certainly have a lot of needs. We should stay on it.”

Inside Coffin

The building contains asbestos and would require abatement before demolition, according to Fire Chief Jason Gilliland.

“The roof is leaking and has caused a number of 2×2 ceiling tiles on the second floor to become saturated and collapse on the floor,” he said. “There was also a light fixture that was attached to the ceiling tiles that let go as well.”

The Fire Department has responded to the Coffin School approximately 24 times since it closed.

“The building is still being protected by the fire alarm system, the doors are all secured, with no-trespassing signs posted, and it is under 24-hour camera surveillance,” Gilliland explained. “In addition, I had the natural gas main going to the building terminated last Friday. So I would say it is as safe as an empty building can be without being occupied on a regular basis.”

The Coffin School’s fate will be on an upcoming School Committee agenda, Cresta said.

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

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