School closings pose a big risk
State could trim promised funds
School officials in Hingham and Milton are considering closing school buildings next fiscal year so they can save jobs by eliminating costs related to running those facilities.
But as voters in both towns consider tax-limit overrides to raise additional revenue, much of it to be used for local education, the officials are learning that closing a school to address an expected budget shortfall could cost the community more than it would save.
Both the Hingham and Milton school systems were warned recently by the Massachusetts School Building Authority that they could be forced to return any state assistance grants used for school construction costs if they decide to close a school or change its use.
In letters to the two districts, the state agency said it has the power to demand some or all of the grant money back. Most schools in the state have obtained reimbursements for their school building projects, in some cases at a rate of 90 percent.
Closing a school to ease budget problems is a trend starting to appear in various parts of the state, said the School Building Authority's executive director, Katherine Craven. And it's one her agency doesn't like to see.
"When you have to close an older school to have the money to open a new one, it's a situation SBA doesn't want to create," Craven said. "You see it more in towns that lack a broad tax base, like Milton, where there's not much of a commercial base. That's a structural problem and they need a long-term solution."
In Hingham, where voters will consider a $1.1 million override at tomorrow's annual Town Meeting and on Saturday's ballot to cover the cost of opening a new $27 million elementary school next fall, local officials concede the state may pursue the town if it reneges on keeping all its schools open.
The new elementary school, under construction since last year, is nearly finished. The state will eventually reimburse the town for 40 percent of the cost. So far, it has contributed $6.7 million.
David Killory, business director for the school district, said if the override initiative fails, one of the town's four elementary schools will most probably have to close for the upcoming year, although it won't be the new one. That may not matter, in terms of the financial consequences.
"Hingham vaulted to the top of our priority list a year ago, due to overcrowding," Craven said. "What's changed since last June that would allow them to close a school? We have sort of a contract with Hingham that the conditions they said were there existed. If everything Hingham said was true, closing a school would result in severe overcrowding of the new building, which isn't why it was built."
Killory said local officials realize that closing any school may violate its agreement with the agency, because of the continued overcrowding. He called the situation "problematic."
Meanwhile, Milton officials were still working on their override amount, but expect it to be around $3.3 million, with $1.3 million earmarked for the schools. The Milton School Committee has been considering closing either the Tucker or Cunningham elementary school if the override fails.
"Although the town of Milton owns these recently built schools, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and the taxpayers that fund the authority statewide, have paid a grant of $114 million to the town for substantial capital construction at the Tucker, Pierce, Collicot/Cunningham, Glover, and Milton High schools," Craven said, adding that the agency has the authority to recover some or all of a grant made for a school if it closes or its educational use changes.
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.