A run for the money
Districts competing for state funds for school building projects will be facing a taller hurdle: As state officials try to control the reins on spending, they vow to apply greater scrutiny of local plans and decisions.
Nearly 1,000 fifth- and sixth-graders will bound into the halls of Shrewsbury's Sherwood Middle School in the fall, a school built in 1964 for 700 pupils.
District officials expanded the school's capacity years ago by adding 10 portable buildings, so it can "theoretically" handle 950 students, said Superintendent Anthony J. Bent.
But first-year principal Jane Lizotte, who attended the school as a teenager, is tasked with finding space for 992.
"We can't turn any of them away," she said.
Shrewsbury officials are hoping the state's new method for funding school construction projects will bring some relief. But they aren't the only ones.
More than a dozen school districts in Boston's western suburbs have submitted so-called statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority under a new system that is meant to be tougher on school systems. They join hundreds statewide who will be competing for up to $500 million in school-construction cash in the coming school year.
"The first year is going to be challenging, because we'll be setting precedents," said state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who oversees the School Building Authority. "But I'm confident we'll have a process that people will accept."
Cahill said there is no way the state would be able to fund all the projects that have been proposed. The deadline to submit statements of interest was Tuesday.
State officials will analyze the requests through the end of the year, when the authority expects to pick the schools that will receive funding first
The state could reimburse cities and towns for minor projects, such as new boilers, as early as next March. But other payments will follow the pace of construction, which could take years, authority officials said.
"We're waiting with bated breath to hear from [the state] on this project," said Bent, who has seen school enrollment in Shrewsbury nearly double during his 14-year tenure. "The building is far beyond its designed capacity."
For its 1,000 students, Sherwood Middle School has two boys' bathrooms and two girls' bathrooms. "Our students have excellent control," Bent said. "That's one thing you learn at Sherwood Middle School."
The 30-minute lunch periods begin at 10 a.m.
"You'll see long lines of students waiting to make their way through the lines and very patient cafeteria workers," Lizotte said. "You can only serve up food so quickly."
But the building is more than just overcrowded; it's also in deteriorating physical shape, Lizotte said, referring to cracked ceiling panels and a heating system that has recurring problems.
"We are doing our best to make it look bright and cheery and welcoming to visitors, and students most importantly," she said. "When you walk into an old decrepit building that's in poor shape, it sends a message we don't want to send to the community."
In Needham, school officials already are embarking on an unusual plan to relieve overcrowding at the Pollard Middle School, and they're hoping their strategy won't hurt their chances of receiving state funding.
Local voters this year approved a $21 million debt exclusion to renovate the High Rock School, a former elementary school, and convert it into a sixth-grade center. Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst called moving all the sixth-graders to the renovated building a temporary but necessary solution.
The Needham district is taking a risk, because the School Building Authority has told communities not to begin work on projects until the state has done its assessment and approved funding. In general, the state will pick up between 40 and 80 percent of the total cost of the projects, and the towns and districts will pick up the rest. The amount of reimbursement will vary depending on the wealth of a community and other factors, including a community's track record of keeping buildings well-maintained.
"We certainly would like reimbursement, but we had to move forward on the project because of student-enrollment growth," Gutekanst said. "We are moving forward with eyes wide open knowing the MSBA may not provide funding for our project."
The renovated school is projected to open for sixth-graders in fall 2009.
In the meantime, the school has split classes and converted other spaces into classrooms to accommodate students. The alternative, increasing class size, is unacceptable, Gutekanst said.
In many schools, facilities are not able to accommodate changing standards for instruction. In science labs, for example, older classrooms were designed for a teacher to conduct an experiment while students watched. Now, however, curriculum standards call for students to conduct experiments themselves, and high schools built in the 1950s were not designed with that in mind, several school officials said.
Natick High School principal John Hughes said the school's science labs do not have adequate facilities or enough stations to accommodate that kind of collaboration. "It's like your kitchen at home. After 50 years, most people redo their kitchens, and it's similar with this."
Natick High School, built in 1954, doesn't look so bad, but in the dead of winter, when the heating system goes out, its age can cause heartache for teachers and students, Hughes said. "It is clean. I think it's been pretty-well maintained, but the major components basically are worn out.
"There's usually some segment of the building that is without heat on a daily basis during the winter. There are close to 15 miles of heating pipe in this facility, and something different goes, it seems, on a daily basis."
The roofs also regularly leak water into storage rooms and hallways after rainstorms.
"We have had sections of the roof replaced, but it seems to find another way to get in," Hughes said.
A state review team took a look at Natick High on July 26, meeting with administrators and facilities managers.
School Building Authority officials said Natick High was one of nine schools chosen for reviews as part of a pilot program to verify the complaints identified in the statements of interest. Natick Superintendent James J. Connolly has tried to play down expectations for community leaders.
"They will have an awful lot of applications coming in," Connolly said. "They have a priority order that address issues such as enrollment-related issues that may be above building renovation needs. I think the hope would be that with in the first three or four years they would have most of these projects funded."
For his part, Bent, the Shrewsbury superintendent, said the public should be pleased with the new process, even if it means fewer requests are funded.
"They had to rein it in, because it was far beyond the reasonable capacity of the state to fund," Bent said. "Now it's more contained. There perhaps won't be the unrestrained approvals, but it's fiscally responsible what they're doing."
Katherine Craven, executive director of the School Building Authority, said districts that do not receive funding the first year of the program could be funded in later years. The authority plans to spend up to $2.5 billion on school construction over the next five years.
"Our job is to try to work through every community's issues and find out which communities are the neediest," Craven said. "The state's money should go to them first. Hopefully, we'll get to everyone in some fashion."
John C. Drake can be reached at 508-820-4229 or email@example.com.