Not at all costs

State cracking down on funding grand plans for school amenities

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rachana Rathi
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

The town of Wellesley has a vision: a $159 million new high school, where its students will have access to a theater, a state-of-the-art broadcast studio, and an indoor track. In Norwood, the plan is to spend $80 million to $100 million on a new high school with a gym large enough to replace the two they have now, and maybe even a replica of the old school's landmark clock tower.

Both plans face a major hurdle: the state, on which each project depends for significant funding help.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill has made it clear that he will use the power of the purse to control the costs of local school projects. He criticized the Wellesley proposal for being too extravagant, likening it to the new Newton North High School under construction for $197.5 million. He vowed to prevent any more such projects in Massachusetts, saying earlier this year that the state's job is "not to build Taj Mahals."

Norwood has already received the go-ahead from the state to design its project, along with a commitment for funding, although the money is conditional on the school's final design being approved. Wellesley has yet to even meet with the state. Officials in both towns are concerned that they won't be allowed to build the schools they want, or believe their communities can afford, and Cahill is doing little to allay those fears.

"Cities that want to tear down buildings and build new ones, yet want everything they had in the old buildings and more, may have to rethink their mindset," Cahill said in an interview. "We're not going to let communities, educators, and architects push us around. We're not going to let them build something nobody, not state or local taxpayers, can afford."

As treasurer, Cahill serves as chairman of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has $2.5 billion to dole out to local school projects over the next five years, reimbursing communities for between 40 and 80 percent of their construction costs.

The projects in Newton, Wellesley, and Norwood are among the first to be reviewed by the authority, formed in 2004 by the state Legislature to provide more stringent oversight of local school projects than its predecessor agency.

The School Building Authority has little leverage to force changes to the Newton high school, because the state's contribution was approved under the prior system.

It can, however, require Wellesley and other districts to scale down plans to receive funding.

In municipalities across the Commonwealth, Cahill's message is being heard loud and clear. Officials in Natick and Franklin have echoed his words, saying they have no intention to build a Taj Mahal, or anything like Newton North, with its pool, restaurant, and otherwise deluxe design. Each community says it simply wants to continue to offer a program equal to what it has now.

But, as in the cases of Wellesley and Norwood, even continuing current programs could mean building a more expensive, more feature-rich school than state guidelines allow.

Officials in both towns have said they will ask residents to fund anything that is in excess of the building authority's limits.

The MSBA has said it will reimburse 40 percent of the cost of Wellesley's new high school, providing it approves of the plan. For their part, Wellesley officials say they are not asking the state to count the full $159 million projected cost when determining how much it will reimburse. They say up to $11 million should be excluded, including the purchase of neighboring properties and the cost of modular classrooms needed during construction.

Some of the school's other features, such as the theater, track, and television studio it shares with the local cable-access channel, also may not make the cut, but "they are spaces we have considered integral to the project and ones we hope the community would support," said Selectwoman Katherine Babson, who is also chairwoman of the town's School Building Committee.

Cahill is not buying it.

"You can't just separate out certain aspects. We're paying for the foundation and the envelope to the building," he said. He later added, "Just because you have the money doesn't mean you should be allowed to do it. One community should not be able to provide better opportunities for kids versus another community just because they have the money."

Cahill said even wealthier communities are not in a position to afford everything they want. He cited Newton, where a proposed $12 million property-tax increase to cover operating expenses was defeated last month largely because residents were angry about the rising cost of the high school project. The failed Proposition 2 1/2 override will force the district to reduce teaching positions, Superintendent Jeffrey Young says.

If communities still want to pursue additional features on their own, Cahill said, they can build separate buildings and fund them through endowments, like universities or private schools do. Otherwise, he recommends cutting back programs, particularly in areas that don't have to do with core academics, or placing more emphasis on areas that get the most usage, like classrooms.

"No one is saying I want more square footage in my classrooms. No, they want more common space, a larger gym, balconies for their auditoriums, large administrative areas. They're not talking about a larger library," Cahill said. "It's paramount. We're building schools for education, not for phys ed, not for the arts, not for community events."

Norwood is one of 18 projects to receive an early green light from the MSBA, which said it would reimburse 51 percent of the cost of a new high school based on an estimated total of $80 million. Cahill said he is baffled by recent statements from Norwood calling the $80 million figure "outdated" and saying the project could cost as much as $100 million.

Some municipalities have explained rising prices as due to increases in energy, fuel, and construction costs, and in some cases, those claims have been factually incorrect, Cahill said.

"That's what they all say," he said. "We understand inflation is an issue, but prices haven't tripled in the last three years. It just means we have to cut back."

One solution the agency is considering is to develop prototype schools, where the MSBA would provide the designs communities must use if they want the authority's funding. But municipalities say the needs of every school, and community, are different.

"All of our schools in the state are not the same now, especially the high schools - the programs are very different, and a part of that is a reflection of the needs and wants and desires of each community," said the Norwood school district's superintendent, Edward Quigley.

He stressed that school officials intend to be responsible to taxpayers while providing for student needs, and therefore will work closely with the MSBA and abide by the authority's terms.

Quigley hopes for some concessions, however. Since the current Norwood High has two gyms in full use, can the district push the MSBA's 10,000-square-foot gymnasium guideline to allow an 18,000-square-foot facility in the new school? Can it also increase the size of the cafeteria? For 18 years, the school has had a dean for each of the grades in place of a second assistant principal - can it continue to give them office space? Can it have a bigger music room because the school has an orchestra with large instruments?

"There are a number of things that would be terrific to have, like a field house for tournaments," Quigley said. "But in the real world, they're not very practical or core to the mission of our schools - we're not asking for those, we just want to continue offering the programs we currently offer."

Quigley also said the town is ready to fund the extras, about 15,000 square feet in all, on its own, capping the amount the agency will fund.

But Cahill said capping the agency's grant, as was the case in Newton, where the authority's $46.6 million commitment has remained the same while the project's cost rose from $104 million to $197.5 million, is not an acceptable option. He said he is not only responsible to state taxpayers, but also to local taxpayers.

"We have a responsibility for the whole picture," Cahill said. "We can't just give them the money and say we don't care how you spend it. That's what happened in Newton, and we let the local taxpayers down."

He said it comes down to the bottom line, and the willingness of communities to give something in order to get what they want.

"The MSBA continues to meet with stakeholders from Norwood and Wellesley, and we anticipate reaching solutions that will result in appropriate school buildings for students while holding the line for taxpayers," wrote Francy Ronayne, a spokeswoman for Cahill, in e-mailed responses to questions.

"The discussions with both Norwood and Wellesley are going very well and progress is being made in both communities."

Rachana Rathi can be reached at

Globe Correspondent Lisa Keen contributed to this report.

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