State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill warned Mayor David B. Cohen of Newton yesterday that extensive design changes would have to be part of any meaningful plan to save money on the most expensive high school project in Massachusetts history.
The warning came in a bluntly worded letter in which Cahill accepted Cohen's request for help in holding down the soaring cost of building a new Newton North High School.
The project has come under increasing fire since Cohen announced last month that its estimated price tag had risen from $141 million to more than $186 million in six months and that the final cost likely could go even higher.
Last week, the mayor sent Cahill a letter inviting state officials to Newton to give their "suggestions on how we could save money on this important project."
In his response yesterday, Cahill raised questions about the timing of Cohen's request for help from the state School Building Authority, which is committed to paying $46.5 million of the project's cost.
The letter included a long list of documents Cahill is asking the city to provide before scheduling any future meeting.
While saying that he and the authority's executive director, Katherine Craven, would be happy to meet with Newton officials, Cahill pointed out that the agency has already been working for three years "to accommodate Newton's selected design for the high school project."
Over that time, the city has considered but rejected a number of cost-saving measures, including renovating the existing building and opting for a simpler design over the complex, zig-zag-shaped structure envisioned by renowned architect Graham Gund of Cambridge.
More recently, the city declined several other smaller cost-saving design changes, including scaling back the school's multilevel theater into a single-level auditorium and using polished concrete blocks instead of brick for the exterior.
While Cohen said recently that he was willing to revisit some of those smaller decisions, Cahill wrote that the time for minor adjustments to the project had already come and gone.
"Given the timing of your correspondence and the fact that the pouring of the foundation for the newly designed school is imminent," Cahill wrote, "I would caution that the opportunities for significant cost savings may no longer be available unless you and the city agree to make changes to the proposed design of the school, which may be extensive."
That sentiment appears to put the two sides significantly at odds. Cohen has said repeatedly lately that any savings from major design changes would be offset by the cost associated with delays in building the project.
The mayor has also rejected any suggestion that construction of the new school be delayed, even temporarily, and crews began pouring concrete this week.
City spokesman Jeremy Solomon said yesterday afternoon that the city would provide the extensive project documentation requested by the treasurer in his letter, but he called Cahill's suggestion of major design changes "a big question mark."
"I am sure the treasurer knows the ramifications of changing the design at this stage in the process," Solomon said.
Opponents of the current plan said they were encouraged by Cahill's offer to help.
"I only wish his invitation would have been accepted sooner," said Alderman Ken Parker, who has backed scrapping the Gund design and has formed a committee to explore a possible run for the mayor's office.
"But I'm optimistic that we can get this project back on track. We need a high school project we can afford, not one that will force us to lay off police and firefighters."
-- Ralph Ranalli and Rachana Rathi
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