City looks to replace its oldest school

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2010

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Built in 1894, Quincy’s Central Middle School long ago gave the city its money’s worth.

But replacing the worn-out school with a new one, as some have proposed, is raising concerns about whether taxpayers can afford it in this time of empty wallets.

One of the city’s four middle schools, Central serves 600 students in grades 6 through 8. While residents praise the school’s staff and the quality of education provided there, many parents and school officials, as well as Mayor Thomas Koch, think it’s time to replace one of the oldest school buildings in Eastern Massachusetts with a new facility.

“I don’t know how it lasted this long,’’ said Jo-Ann Bragg a member of of the city’s School Building Committee. “The building is in dire need of replacement.’’

Since the school site, which rests in the heart of the city, between Quincy Center and Wollaston, is too small to meet current state funding standards, the committee is backing a plan to buy land and build a new 620-student school on 4 acres across from Merrymount Park, near Central’s current location. State standards have also ruled out funding for renovating the existing building.

Bragg said the city will choose an architect next month to design a new school. Plans call for the design phase to last a year, construction to take a little more than a year, and the school to open in 2012.

But while most everyone agrees that the new school is needed, questions remain over whether the city’s taxpayers can pay for it.

“This is the rainy day, and the rainy day fund is lower than it should be,’’ said Ward 5 City Councilor Doug Gutro.

Gutro said he supports building a new Central Middle School and buying land for it this year, but he also sees the city facing tough decisions about where to make cuts to balance its budget.

“We have to make difficult decisions in the coming weeks and redefine how to deliver basic city services,’’ he said.

The chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, John Keenan, said he wants the council to make those decisions by taking a close look at city expenditures — including reconsidering the Central Middle School construction schedule — to slow down its effect on the budget.

“In the context of everything else going on, it’s something we have to ask about,’’ Keenan said.

Everything else includes “a very tough budget year’’ with an estimated $12 million budget gap, expectations of reduced state aid, and a struggling economy.

The city’s financial challenges are compounded by $7 million in raises owed to city workers from contacts negotiated several years ago, plus significant loan payments for the city’s new Quincy High School.

Keenan, a Central School alumnus who agrees a new school is needed, is concerned that loan payments for both a new high school and a new middle school may cause a significant spike in budgets.

He said he’s not the only one. “We do hear from people concerned about losing services,’’ he said. “Also that they can’t afford a tax increase.’’

Taxpayers brought questions about repayment schedules and the project’s effect on their tax bills to a public information meeting last week.

Koch sought to address their concerns by showing that moving ahead with plans for the school would have little effect on the city’s looming budget crunch.

After hitting taxpayers with one of the largest property tax increases in history two years ago — and holding taxes level on a $226 million budget this year — Koch has explicitly warned residents that the city is facing bad budget news.

“We have a very big budget gap,’’ he said.

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