The state says it will reinstate funding for the stalled Concord-Carlisle High School building project, but only if the regional district submits monthly progress reports and meets other unusual conditions.
District officials, who have been criticized by some residents over their handling of the project, must ensure that they comply with the state’s laws covering public meetings and the release of public documents, and submit a revised budget for the project, according to the state agency that oversees funding for school construction projects. The district may see its grant for the new high school reduced.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority suspended $28.8 million in promised reimbursements for the $92.6 million high school project in late June, saying it had ballooned over budget and scope, and had veered off schedule. At one point this spring, the project was poised to run between $15 million and $17 million over its construction budget.
In a letter dated Thursday, the agency said those problems have largely been solved.
“The MSBA finds that the project . . . is in compliance with the project scope, total project budget, and project schedule, subject to the District’s completion of the action items,” the letter states.
“I’m pleased,” said Stan Durlacher, chairman of the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Building Committee. “The project’s going to move forward.”
However, the building authority’s letter requests that the total project budget be revised to reflect changes to various line items, and notes that a state review could result in the grant being reduced.
The letter says the authority “anticipates” a decrease, but a spokesman declined to speculate on possible changes.
“The final grant amount will be determined by the MSBA based on a review and audit of all project costs incurred by the District, in accordance with the MSBA’s regulations, policies, and guidelines,” spokesman Matt Donovan wrote in an e-mail. “The final grant amount may be an amount less than $28,781,100.”
Durlacher said he was not surprised to hear that the funding may drop.
“There hasn’t been a grant I’ve heard of that didn’t get diminished over time,” he said. “They have a tendency to go down.”
Groundbreaking for the project, originally planned for this fall but delayed by the suspension of funds, will likely take place in the first quarter of next year, said Durlacher. The district is still on track to finish the project in late fall 2015.
The district has 21 days from the letter’s date to submit the “action items’’ to the state. Donovan called the agency’s requests “highly unusual,” in part because cutting off a project’s funding is unusual.
One of the conditions requires the district to submit a monthly letter to the MSBA outlining the status of the project, including construction milestones and any changes to the design or budget. The letter must be signed by Durlacher and distributed to the Concord-Carlisle School Committee and the selectmen in both towns, as well as other applicable committees, and must be posted on the school building committee’s website within 24 hours.
Donovan said the state has never requested that a school district submit the kinds of reports that are being asked of Concord-Carlisle, though he said the state receives other kinds of monthly reports.
The letter notes ongoing problems with the district’s communications, and includes an action item directing the district to improve.
“The MSBA continues to receive numerous communications from residents expressing their concern and frustration about the District’s and the School Building Committee’s perceived lack of transparency,” it states. “The District is responsible for knowing and understanding its obligations under the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law, and ensuring that its communications plan complies with both the letter and spirit of those laws.”
Another action item requires the district to allow the MSBA to review what happened between the approval of the project and the suspension of grant payments, focusing on the roles, responsibilities, and performance of the district’s consultants.
Durlacher said the district will be happy to comply with the action items. The monthly status reports, he said, would actually benefit the project.
“I think it’s a very fair and appropriate request,” he said.
The suspension of funds in June ignited an already-simmering anger in the community over the project’s handling. Residents have said that the project they voted to fund at Town Meeting is not the project in the process of being built.
“I’m stunned and disturbed that the MSBA has released the funds,” said Concord resident Lissa McKinney, who has been an outspoken critic of the changes to the school’s design.
“They are accepting the design changes with full knowledge that the designs are not what the community voted,” McKinney said. “In fact, it’s not the same building that was voted; in fact, it was trimmed by 15 to 20 million dollars; in fact, the design was changed.”
Durlacher, who took over as chairman of the building committee in July after its previous two cochairs resigned, said he can understand residents’ frustration to some extent. At Town Meeting, he said, residents were presented with drawings of the school along with a “value engineering” list that had about $7.5 million worth of features that the district intended to remove. The drawings included the features that the district planned to take out.
“If I ever had to hit a reset button, I’d go back and connect the value engineering list onto the drawings,” he said. “I think there’s a legitimate baseline in saying, ‘What I saw wasn’t what I understood.’ ”
Still, he said, the value engineering list was part of the proposal, and the MSBA voted on the same package of documents that the towns did.
Overall, Durlacher said, he is pleased with the state’s announcement.
“It’s a very affirmative confirmation that the documentation we submitted in August meets the terms and conditions of the project funding agreement,” he said.