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Wellesley High would be second costliest, state says

Posted by David Dahl, Regional Editor May 25, 2008 09:48 AM

A new analysis by the Massachusetts School Building Authority says the proposed $159 million high school in Wellesley is the second most expensive school project in the state on a per-student basis.

Based on a projected enrollment of 1,600 at the high school, state and local taxpayers would spend $99,103 per student to build the facility, according to the analysis by the state agency. It would cost about $485 per square foot.

The estimated per-student cost is second only to the proposed $197.5 million Newton North High School project, which has become a symbol of excess in the state. Newton's school would cost $112,857 per student, with an estimated enrollment of 1,750 students, the state analysis says. (See a separate story on Norwood High here.)

The figures emerged in a week of bad news for Wellesley officials looking to push forward with plans for a facility to replace the town's 70-year-old high school building and address student population growth.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill singled out the Wellesley project last week, saying that the School Building Authority is "not going to be spending $160 million or financing half of that for any of our communities."

In a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Cahill compared the Wellesley plan to what he called the "badly managed" Newton North project.

Wellesley officials had hoped their project would be on the agenda of Wednesday's meeting of the School Building Authority, which Cahill chairs. Instead, the authority approved a 51 percent reimbursement for Norwood's plan to replace its 83-year-old high school with a new building at an estimated cost of $80 million.

Norwood's enrollment is about 1,100 students; the school would cost $72,727 per student to build.

Among other area school projects, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, completed in 2004, cost $46,188 per student, or about $199 per square foot.

In remarks to the chamber Thursday morning, Cahill had critical words for the ongoing Newton North High School project, which has seen costs jump from $141 million in January 2007 to $197 million as of last month.

"We're committed to not letting that happen anywhere else," said Cahill, "and that goes for Wellesley."

Specifically, Cahill said the state would not provide reimbursement for such features as swimming pools or, as Wellesley's current design proposal includes, small performance spaces known as black-box theaters.

In response to the state analysis, Wellesley Selectwoman Katherine L. Babson Jr., who also chairs the town's School Building Committee, said it is unfair to judge Wellesley's proposal now, since the numbers are only conceptual. She pledged to work with the state to determine what design and costs would be appropriate.

"The most important thing for us to say is we're looking forward to working with the state on these numbers and we have every intention of building a school that is going to be reasonably priced, that will meet the needs of our community, and meet the requirements of the MSBA," she said.

"We went through a very public and thorough process looking at what our educational program would be in a school to last us through 50 years, and out of that we developed these educational specifications, the exact square footage for space to deliver that program," she said.

Wellesley's estimate of $159 million includes about $9 million in costs the town knows the authority does not include in its reimbursement calculations (such as modular classrooms to address enrollment needs during construction). It also contains about $17 million in projected cost escalations for construction that won't begin until the summer of 2010 at the earliest. Removing the items that can't be reimbursed, and considering the estimate in today's dollars, she said, would bring the estimate closer to $133 million.

However, Katherine Craven, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, said projections of cost escalations were included in Newton North High School's original estimates, too. And while some news reports suggested Norwood's $80 million estimate was established in 2005, Craven said the town's projections also took into consideration future cost escalations. She added that the state authority "wouldn't agree to any number that's not realistic.

"We feel like we have to sharpen our pencils with Wellesley," said Craven, adding that the authority would be looking at the scope and breadth of the project to try to get the cost down.

Craven said Wellesley would likely be on the authority's agenda for its July meeting, but added that the project, as it stands right now, "is one the board thinks is more expensive than we're willing to commit to."

According to Babson, even if the authority reviews the plan in July, Wellesley would not be able to convene a Special Town Meeting to consider a debt-exclusion override of Proposition 2 1/2 to pay for the project until December. Officials had hoped to hold a vote on the tax increase in October.

The regulations governing the four-year-old Massachusetts School Building Authority call for the agency to provide a minimum of 40 percent and a maximum of 80 percent of any project it decides to fund. The decisions are made by Cahill and the six other members of the authority's board of directors.

The authority is expected to make $2.5 billion in grants over the next five years. Last summer, as part of the application to receive funding, 161 school districts applied for assistance for more than 400 projects.

--- Lisa Keen and Milton J. Valencia

1 comments so far...
  1. Very politically expedient of Treasurer Cahill to highlight the problems of Newton's high school project, generalize them to all other projects in the state and intimate that Wellesley's plan is out of line relative to other high school projects. Let's hope he puts a little more analytical heft into his day job as the state's CFO.

    State regulations don't dictate reimbursement for construction costs "shall be $XXX per pupil" - nor should they. Site conditions, land costs, materials, location and - hello?- inflation (has Cahill not been getting his monthly Producer Price Index reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics?) all contribute to project costs. According to the Daily News Transcript (May 18, 2008 article), Norwood's proposed high school has range of $80-$100 million in cost estimates that date to 2005. (Anyone want to guess what has happened to construction costs in the past 3 years?) It's pretty easy to say, all things being equal, the state should support it's contribution to educational facilities in an amount that equal across the state. However, as we know, rarely are all things equal.

    Projects should also serve the needs and requirements of the local community with some elements considered by some to be unnecessary "bells and whistles" covered by the local community contribution to overall construction costs.

    Rather than pre-judging Wellesley's plan, spouting off and lumping it into Newton's unfortunate situation to demonstrate "leadership" on the issue, a few ideas for Treasurer Cahill to consider:

    (1) Invest some of his time (or his staff's) to actually read Wellesley's proposal and understand that it doesn't include things like a swimming pool;

    (2) Get out his calculator (he's got one, right?) and - if he wants to focus on misleading but easy-to-calculate metrics like cost-per-pupil - then take Norwood's cost, inflate it at a compounded rate of 8% (construction cost inflation estimate) for three years (realistically when the Wellesley project will get started) and then start the comparisons (not that far off);

    (3) acknowledge that:

    (a) many people live in and move to Massachusetts (and businesses are encouraged to relocate here via state tax incentives) because of a strong commitment to/history of investment in education that, as with any public good, has longer positive benefits for the state and society as a whole, and

    (b) the state should be encouraging this through it's role in infrastructure investment and, recognize that like transportation, cost of utilities, etc. public education and related educational facilities are a competitive consideration for highly-"skilled" (read: "paid" - which - Earth to Cahill - translates into income tax dollars into the state treasury) workers and companies considering Massachusetts a place to live and work. Pop quiz: If you were a "highly-skilled" biotech scientist looking to raise a family and had a choice of sending your children (A) to a school system in another state (think someplace in a warm southwest location -- e.g. a fast-growing community which likely already has a new high school) that recognizes its graduates are facing a global economy and prepares them by employing the human resources and providing facilities reflective of those needs or (B) a school system that could loose its accreditation because of deficient, outdated facilities, which would you pick?

    (4) If there are so many educational facility projects in Massachusetts and limited resources available to fund them, perhaps the MSBA should re-evaluate the statutory and regulatory environment that affect how local governments plan, contract for and oversee the construction of these projects. Can local governments employ the same contractual and risk transfer techniques as private companies to control or hedge construction costs?

    I look forward to Treasurer Cahill's insights and value engineering suggestions upon review of Wellesley's proposal.

    Posted by Patty Mallett May 26, 08 02:15 AM
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