What Are They Doing to My High School?

An arrogant mayor, an overbearing town, expensive delays, and a $200 million question: Is the planned Newton North a lesson in suburban excess? Or a model school for the future? One alumnus goes back to find out.

Clockwise, from top left: Newton North High School in 1950; the current school; the future site of the new school; an artist's rendering of the new school. Clockwise, from top left: Newton North High School in 1950; the current school; the future site of the new school; an artist's rendering of the new school. (1950 photograph from Newton Historical Society; current- and future-site photographs by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff; rendering from City of Newton.)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Seth Mnookin
May 25, 2008

THE FIRST TIME I CROSSED PATHS WITH DAVID COHEN WAS IN OCTOBER of 1988. I was a 16-year-old junior at Newton North High School in charge of putting together the student newspaper's 12-page election special, and Cohen was a 40-year-old state representative running for his sixth term. We had a brief interview - he told me of his plan to safeguard the quality of the city's drinking water - and that was that. Newton's future mayor didn't interest me much at the time; my focus was on getting someone from the Dukakis and Bush campaigns to talk to me.

Twenty years later, I'm still a reporter, and I'm still more interested in the presidential campaign than I am in the politics of the city in which I was raised. Until a couple of months ago, I wouldn't have been able to identify Cohen as the city's three-term mayor and had no idea that Newton was embroiled in a high-pitched debate about tearing down my alma mater in order to build a new high school that included, among other amenities, a functioning HVAC system and a layout that didn't require an advanced degree in cartography to navigate.

Then I got this assignment. My editor wanted a personal narrative rather than a rehash of a story that's already been covered everywhere from Chicago to Chesterfield, Maine, so I began to map out an affectionate piece that lampooned the self-indulgence of my hometown while also affording me a chance to revisit my not-so-idyllic teenage years.

But, as I first learned in the ninth grade while sitting behind Lisa Rosman (my prom-date-to-be) in Helen Smith's journalism class, a reporter's primary responsibility is to make sure he gets his facts straight, no matter how obvious the story might appear initially. So I began sifting through the sundry and sordid details of what state Treasurer Timothy Cahill has referred to as Massachusetts's very own Taj Mahal: an almost $200 million, environmentally correct, 405,000-square-foot facility designed by award-winning architect Graham Gund that's scheduled to open in the fall of 2010. I talked to city officials and school committee members, aldermen and architects, old classmates and current activists. I read 19th-century histories of Newton and pored over 35-year-old newspaper clips. And those details led me to break the second cardinal rule of journalism: never get emotionally involved in a story. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

NEWTON NORTH IS, FOR BETTER OR WORSE, THE DEFINING INSTITUTION of my life. It's where I learned how to write a newspaper headline and where I learned how to disguise the smell of liquor on my breath. It's where I was cast as the lead in a Neil Simon play and where I was kicked out of a Shakespeare production. It's the only place I've ever been beaten up, and it's the only place I've ever been on the honor roll.

When I arrived there in 1986, North had just over 2,200 students, each of whom was assigned to one of the school's five "houses," which dictated what color-coded locker you were assigned and where you attended homeroom. The actual location of our lockers, however, was dictated by our social circles. Barry House, which was closest to the main entrance, was where the deaf kids hung out; Beals belonged to the nondescript and the nerds; Adams had the jocks; Palmer was the provenance of the kids from the Lake (known, in local parlance, as mushes); and Riley was for the prom queens and rich kids. By rights, I should have hung out in Riley - most of my junior high friends ended up there - but I set up shop at the far end of the school in Bacon, a long-shuttered sixth house whose barely functioning lockers had been taken over by skateboarders, punk rockers, misfits, theater geeks, and burnouts. (If The Breakfast Club had been set at North, Ally Sheedy would have hung out in Bacon, Molly Ringwald in Riley, Emilio Estevez in Adams, and Anthony Michael Hall in Beals. Despite the mushes' often violent dislike of the punkers, Judd Nelson could have hung out in either Palmer or Bacon, drugs being, of course, the great equalizer.) As far as I was concerned, Bacon had the most interesting people; it was also closest to the school's Hull Street entrance, which was where we all went to drink and smoke.

North has been cleaned up a bit since then - Bacon no longer looks like an anarchist squat overrun by disaffected teens - but on a fundamental level, not a lot has changed. A recent self-guided tour showed the school to be as essentially ungovernable as ever: during the hour I spent surreptitiously wandering the halls, whenever it seemed as if someone was about to ask why I was skulking outside of a high school English class, I easily disappeared around one of the school's many odd-cornered corridors. It only took me about 10 minutes to locate a gaggle of pot smokers outside the cafeteria, and another 10 to stumble upon an amorous assignation at the top of one of the pillbox-capped stairwells that inexplicably dead-ended. (I knew to look there because a janitor had found me doing that very thing in that very spot with my sophomore-year girlfriend.)

My emotional investment in this story is not, however, the result of some sort of sepia-tinged attachment to the building itself. It's not because in the course of my research I realized that North doesn't need to be replaced (it most definitely does), nor is it because of the new school's jawdropping cost (it's actually more or less in line with what comparable communities are spending on their new facilities). My investment in the story comes from a relatively newfound appreciation for what money can mean to public school students. For years, both of my siblings have been educators: My sister, Abigail (NNHS '94), teaches high school science in Chester, Vermont, and my brother, Jacob (Beaver Country Day School '97), is in the process of opening a charter school in Coney Island. (Both of them work considerably harder than I do and are paid considerably less for their efforts.) For the past half decade, I've worked with 826NYC, a nonprofit that helps students with their writing skills through dropin tutoring and in-school and after-school workshops. Since last September, I've been teaching a journalism class at Brooklyn's Secondary School for Journalism, one of New York City's magnet high schools, after I discovered that it had neither a regular journalism program nor an ongoing student newspaper.

All three of us have had to make painful choices about what we could offer our students for want of $10,000. I'm not saying that Newton shouldn't spend as much as it wants and is able to spend on a new school - I am, after all, well aware that attending the Newton Public Schools is one of the many lucky breaks I've had in a life full of good fortune. The tragedy of this story is that during a time when teachers around the country, from New Orleans to Newark, are spending their own money on school supplies for their students, Newton could have had the exact same wonderful, new high school, with the same zigzag design, glass-walled cafeteria, and solar paneling, for tens of millions of dollars less, if only so many of Newton's residents weren't in love with the sound of their own voices.

FOR THE LAST 150 YEARS, NEWTON'S ALLURE HAS been a combination of its proximity to Boston, its peacefulness, and the quality of its public education. The city's first high school, located on Walnut Street on a parcel of land that abutted the entrance of future Massachusetts Governor William Claflin's estate, opened in 1859. Before long, the student population doubled, Newton was incorporated as a city in 1873, and the original four-room schoolhouse was enlarged. (This occurred amid vigorous debates concerning what many citizens regarded as the excessive amount of money being spent on education.) In the late 1890s, that building was torn down and replaced with a new structure. In 1909, the Newton Technical High School was added to the site, and 17 years after that, what was commonly known as building three became the last addition to the complex. Those three buildings, shoehorned onto a tract just off what would become the Mass. Pike, proved sufficient until 1960, when the city built a second high school - christened Newton South - about 2 1/2 miles away. (It was during this era that Time wrote that Newton was blessed with what was "probably the most creative school system in the country.") In 1968, the city's Board of Aldermen voted to tear down the ramshackle collection of buildings that was by then called Newton North and build a new school from scratch.

The project was plagued with setbacks and cost increases from the start. Drainage problems, the result of all the previous construction on the site, necessitated raising the foundation of the school by 6 feet. As the delays mounted, fees rose. Finally, in the fall of 1973, the new Newton North opened to students, two years behind schedule and, at a cost of $18.5 million, 20 percent over budget. Even before the school year started, students were complaining that the building's windowless classrooms and labyrinthine hallways were more appropriate to a prison than to a place of learning, resulting in the still-prevalent urban legend that the school was actually designed by a prison architect. (Not all of the reviews were so negative: A Globe reporter likened "Main Street," the broad central corridor that runs the length of the building and was designed to force the school's population to mingle, to "a city within a school," complete with "Paris street kiosks.")

It didn't take long for North to unite students, teachers, administrators, parents, and even elected officials, no small feat in the early '70s. The building, according to the school's head custodian at the time, was "a maintenance nightmare" that took 21/2 hours to lock up. A year after opening, 500 students marched on City Hall to protest health hazards from the school's heating and ventilation systems and the use of asbestos to wrap the building's heating pipes. Theodore Mann, Newton's newly elected mayor, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the school's architects, builders, and subcontractors.

By the time I arrived at North in the fall of 1986, the last of the asbestos insulation had been removed three years earlier; still, many of the other problems remained. The building was unpredictably leaky. As had been the case since it opened, it was inexplicably hot in the winter and jarringly cold come spring. (Classmate Satish Pillai, with whom I drove around the country following the Grateful Dead the summer after our senior year, took pride in the fact that he wore shorts year-round.) The bricked-in common rooms that connected the Main Street portion of each "house" with the school's classrooms had become violently patrolled fiefdoms, and large numbers of the building's rooms were still, of course, devoid of natural light. After I graduated, a series of minor cosmetic changes were made - hastily constructed walls transformed those common rooms into study halls - but that only delayed the inevitable, and in 1999, the Newton School Committee voted to renovate and expand both of the city's high schools. That's when this party really started. And everyone wanted a piece of the action.

NEWTON HAS HAD ITS FAIR SHARE OF F opinionated and articulate residents, ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Anne Sexton and Timothy Leary. None of the city's better known inhabitants has served on Newton's Board of Aldermen, which is not for lack of opportunity: The board's 24 members make Newton one of just two of Massachusetts's 351 municipalities whose government has more than 15 elected members. (Boston, with seven times the population, has a 13-person City Council, while Brookline and Wellesley somehow manage to get by with a mere five selectmen each.) This robust representation results in a Pynchonesque propensity for task forces, including, for example, an official Hoarding Task Force charged with monitoring the "acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions," "living spaces" so cluttered "as to preclude their intended use," and "significant distress or impairment caused by the clutter."

In 2002, three years after the School Committee's initial vote, a Newton North High School Citizens' task force was established, the composition of which included 11 local residents (chosen from a pool of 160 applicants - that's one for every 12 students at North), five members of the city's various parent-teacher organizations, four aldermen, three School Committee members, the superintendent, and one representative each from the North School Council, Student-Faculty Administration, and Teachers' Association. After four months of Monday meetings, the group voted in favor of what was termed a hybrid plan that included renovating the existing high school and building an addition. The cost was estimated at $84 million.

By the end of 2003, David Cohen, who'd been elected to a second mayoral term two years earlier, announced that he'd prefer building a new school, later estimated at $105 million. There was a sound logic to his plan - in the time since the task force's recommendation, the city had determined it would be able to use state aid to help pay for a new building - but the move was the first in a series of decisions in which aldermen and agitators alike felt that Cohen was trying to hijack the process. Since then, even as projected costs for the new building have steadily risen, virtually every conceivable constituency has approved virtually every conceivable plan: The School Committee voted in favor of a new school in 2004, the Board of Aldermen signed off on a site plan in 2006, the Board of Aldermen voted not to rescind its approval for the site plan later in 2006, and, despite the fact that estimates had now gone over $140 million, a citywide referendum on the school passed by a wide margin early in 2007. (Support for a new school was so strong that proponents of the referendum out-fund-raised opponents by 842 percent.) Just last month, the aldermen approved an additional $56 million.

Alas, Newton is not the type of place where people accept defeat easily, and new votes and new reviews and new hearings were insisted upon again and again and again. Talking recently, Newton-Wellesley Hospital president Michael Jellinek, who had headed up the Citizens' Task Force, said: "The people of Newton can escalate their language very quickly. We live in one of the safest cities in the country" - in fact, since 1999, Newton has been named the safest city of its size in the country three times, based on FBI crime statistics - "and our property values are high. But people can get very upset very quickly. It can make it difficult for the mayor or the aldermen to survive."

Each new delay brought with it attendant price increases, which meant the very people complaining the loudest about the expense were contributing to its seemingly inexorable growth. Several Newton architects submitted new plans, convinced that they'd found a solution that would be cheaper, easier, and faster. Early in the process, Mark Sangiolo, a self-employed local architect, ridiculed the notion of needing "'school architects' under contract with the city" and disputed the notion that it wouldn't be safe to keep students at the existing Newton North while the building was undergoing renovations. After a study of his own, he concluded that the HVAC system was basically fine and the inability to wire the building could be solved by putting Apple AirPort Extremes every 100 feet. (After a fall 2006 visit to North, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges told the city that North faced a loss of its accreditation if problems with the building were not addressed "immediately.")

Sangiolo submitted a proposal of his own which consisted of building a new science wing, punching holes in the ceiling of the existing building to create atriums, sealing off the Main Street corridor, and renovating the rest of the school one floor at a time, an approach that, incidentally, the construction company on the project said was impossible. Sangiolo - who has never designed a school or any other building of comparable size or scope and whose sister-in-law, Amy Mah Sangiolo, is a member of the Board of Aldermen - was successful in having his plan considered. In the midst of all this, and amid some controversy, the design architect, Graham Gund, handed off the completion of the project to another firm. Gund and Cohen both insist that had been the plan all along, although Gund has also implied that the hundreds of meetings he and his staff had to attend didn't help matters any.

"We have a number of very talented local architects in the city who submitted their own designs and said they could do it for $100 million," says an alderman who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the project. "But we can't just have people running up to City Hall and putting plans in front of us. This is no disrespect to them - we have a very talented, very educated, very knowledgeable population in the city of Newton - but we're working with professionals, and because other people don't like it doesn't mean it's not right."

It wasn't just architects who joined in the fun: At one point, local cable personality Barry Nolan suggested spending the $200 million to fund 200 separate 11-student schools, each of which would be located in someone's home. "Everyone would walk to school and save all that money we spend on buses," Nolan wrote in a letter to the Tab, Newton's weekly newspaper. "Houses would compete against each other in sports or games they really liked.... [Y]ou have to admit - it doesn't sound quite as crazy or disastrous as spending $200 million on one new high school." Actually, that sounds much, much crazier.

"Look, I don't necessarily like how the whole thing has been handled," says School Committee member Marc Laredo. "The mayor should have dealt with this years ago. But it's ridiculous. There are still people trying to stop this thing. The train has left the station. The groundbreaking has already happened. The school is being built. We need to move on."

WHEN THE NEW NEWTON NORTH FINALLY opens, it will have several legacies. In all likelihood, it will mark the end of David Cohen's political career. Earlier this month, Cohen announced he would not seek reelection next year. "His fatal flaw," says Gerry Chervinsky, a local pollster who helped run Cohen's last reelection campaign, "is that instead of saying, `We have a problem here. Let's confront it together and deal with it,' he hunkers down secretly and tries to deal with it before it gets out to the public. It's a tragedy. This was a really well-run city, and he's going to be remembered for the way he mismanaged the whole building."

It will also help cement in people's minds the notion that Newton is one of those comically indulgent and offensively profligate suburbs where everyone demands they, and their children, get the very best, consequences be damned. And while Newton can be comically indulgent, this isn't really fair. North won't be that out of line with similar projects: Wellesley's planned high school, which will serve fewer students, will cost at least $150 million. The new $110 million Lawrence High, which opened last fall, did not suffer through years of delays, is on a plot of land more than 65 percent larger than North's, and is located on a different site from the school it replaced, all factors that have driven North's costs up.

But neither Wellesley nor Lawrence has become nationally known for building Taj Mahals, and neither has seen their processes drag on for so long or so publicly. (Even North pales in comparison with a project in Los Angeles, where the cost to complete a half-built public high school has swelled from $87 million in 2002 to over $400 million.) And these delays have not come cheaply. A non-elected official involved in the process estimates that every month North has been delayed has added another million dollars to the cost through interest, escalating prices for steel and labor, and the inability to nail down expenses.

Meanwhile, I'm going virtually door-to-door to drum up $5,000 so my students can publish the first issue of a journal they've spent the past eight months working on. Or, to put it in terms my hometown can understand, I'm trying to come up with the price of approximately 3 1/2 hours of future delays.

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