Newton officials were taken aback when the Massachusetts School Building Authority dictated how the city should ask voters for a tax increase to pay for new school buildings, but it signaled a years-long transition in the state’s role: from silent partner in school construction projects to active manager.
The building authority, which could contribute up to a third of the funding for two new elementary schools, scuttled Mayor Setti Warren’s initial plan to ask for one giant $11.4 million permanent tax increase to pay for the new schools, along with other city infrastructure and staff.
Instead the authority told city officials this month that voters would have to approve tax hikes for the Angier Elementary and Cabot Elementary schools projects individually – politically, a far more difficult task that could divide constituents.
For communities such as Newton that are dealing with the reconfigured state building program for the first time, this level of scrutiny may come as a surprise. It’s a far cry from less than a decade ago, when state officials were unable to intervene and control the ballooning costs of Newton North High School, which grew from $141 million to $195 million in just over a year, earning it the label of most expensive school in state history.
“I think they’re definitely overcompensating,” said Sean Roche, a blogger who wrote an open letter to State Treasurer Steve Grossman on Village 14, a community website, questioning the authority’s decision. “You’re not supposed to be putting burdens in front of projects.”
Grossman, a Newton resident who also serves as chairman of the building authority, was quick to respond, arguing that the agency is providing much needed oversight and trying to ensure that voters know what the potential tax increase would fund.
“Does it make it more challenging? No doubt,” Grossman said in an interview. “But does it make it more transparent? No doubt.”
Projects such as Newton North and a flawed system for providing funds to school building projects ultimately led to the creation of the current building authority and its strict guidelines, Grossman said.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority was created by the state Legislature in 2004 and started inviting districts to submit construction projects under its new system in 2007. Though Newton North opened in 2010, its state funding was approved under the old system.
The authority hasn’t been shy about flexing its muscles, helping districts determine the size of the schools and the designers. If school districts stray in scope and costs, the authority has also demonstrated that it is willing to withhold funding.
Earlier this year, the authority briefly stopped funding for the Methuen High School project while the city tried to find a new construction manager, after its previous one recommended a plan that was about $6 million over budget.
The $100 million high school project is back on track and the city is awaiting reimbursement from the authority, said Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni.
This past June, the authority suspended $28.8 million worth of grant payments to the $92.6 million Concord-Carlisle High School project. At one point this past spring, the project was poised to run between $15 million and $17 million over its construction budget.
Concord-Carlisle school district officials have said that they have scaled back the project and brought its budget back in line to satisfy the authority. No decision had been made by the state on whether to release the money as of Tuesday.
Until the state authority stepped in and suspended the project’s funds, residents in Concord and Carlisle didn’t know that the new high school’s budget had mushroomed, said Lisa Bergen, who has a student at the high school.
“The MSBA has worked really, really hard to be responsive to citizens like us,” Bergen said. “I think the MSBA is absolutely protecting our money.”
The suspension of funds has sparked some fury in the community about the project’s management, and tensions have run so high at some meetings that officials requested a police presence on two occasions.
Jonathan Yeo, a Newton School Committee member who also serves on the district’s building committee, said that local officials have input in the construction process and can tailor the building to the educational programs that the specific school provides.
But there’s more oversight from the state, Yeo said.
“There’s some flexibility within the system,” Yeo said. “The message is that the MSBA is keeping a very close watch over school building projects. . . . They have as much ownership as the municipality.”
The school building authority does try to be flexible, said its executive director, Jack McCarthy.
McCarthy said he had agreed to consider Newton’s initial request for one permanent override for all the city’s projects, including Angier and Cabot, which could receive state money. But when the legal staff reviewed the request, they determined that it wouldn’t work, McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he understands that communities that are going through the new school building construction process might bristle at the requirements, but most are satisfied at the end that their communities have gotten cost-effective facilities.
“We are much more structured, and there are much more hurdles you have along the way,” McCarthy said. “People are still getting used to it.”