A run for the money
Area school districts -- from Beverly to Manchester Essex to Northeast Metro Tech -- face stiff competition for the state's help replacing aging and crowded buildings, even as it applies greater scrutiny to local proposals
At 39 years old, Northeast Metro Tech High School in Wakefield could be a candidate for "This Old House," or at least a schoolhouse version.
There are no natural-gas lines. Water and sewer pipes are corroded. Spare parts no longer fit the backup generator. Air quality is a concern. And 1,250 students are crammed into a facility built for 900 to 1,000 students in 1968.
"Let's face it," said Patricia Cronin, superintendent at Northeast, which serves 12 communities. "When they built schools back then, they did it on the cheap. It's showing its age."
Northeast is one of 19 area public school districts seeking state dollars to repair or replace old buildings. They're competing against a long line of school districts across the state for a share of up to $500 million in new grant money next school year from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is part of the state treasurer's office. The deadline for requests was Tuesday.
Local requests range from single-school projects for Northeast, Beverly, Chelsea, and Danvers to multiple school projects in Georgetown, Lynn, Marblehead, and Saugus. The requests address myriad needs, from saving high school accreditations to solving overcrowding to complying with federal Title IX and handicapped- access laws, school officials said.
"If we're lucky they'll pick us," said Nicholas Kostan, school superintendent in Lynn, which proposes to spend $144 million to renovate four middle schools and an alternative high school. "We have aging school buildings. We maintain them as best we can, but they need upgrades."
Both at more than 100 years old, the Paul Revere and William McKinley elementary schools in Revere have outlived their useful function. "You can't possibly manage 21st-century education programs in 19th-century buildings," said Superintendent Paul Dakin.
The School Building Authority, which received more than 400 project proposals by last week's deadline, has said priority will be given to schools found to be unsafe or overcrowded.
The authority -- which evaluated all public school buildings last year -- now is sending staff back to evaluate conditions at individual schools, and expects to begin deciding at the end of the year which schools will receive funding first.
The state could reimburse cities and towns for minor projects, such as new boilers, as early as March. But other payments will follow the pace of construction, which could take years, authority officials said.
"Our goal is to let communities know as soon as possible if they'll be funded," said Carrie Sullivan, the authority's spokeswoman. "We want to work with them, to find a solution that makes financial and educational sense for both the community and the state."
State staff members have already visited schools in Danvers, Marblehead, and Middleton, and are scheduled to evaluate Beverly schools on Tuesday. Districts with multiple projects have until Aug. 15 to choose one school that the state should consider for funding in the first year.
State Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who also serves as chairman of the School Building Authority, said most districts that requested aid likely will only get one school approved. "We have all agreed that with a limited amount of money, doing more than one project per district is probably not realistic in the first year," he said.
The state is expected to pick up between 40 and 80 percent of the cost of approved projects, with the local governments and school districts picking up the rest.
The pent-up demand for state assistance follows a four-year freeze on school construction funding. With 428 projects on a waiting list for reimbursement, the state temporarily closed the list to new applications. School construction projects, previously overseen by the state Department of Education, shifted to the treasurer's office under a new setup approved by the Legislature.
Some school districts could not wait for the state, however. Under pressure to keep high school accreditation, Beverly and the Manchester Essex regional district moved quickly to build new schools. They first consulted with the School Building Authority to make sure it met the reimbursement guidelines, officials said.
Beverly is moving ahead with a $65 million academic wing for Beverly High School. "It's a calculated risk on our part," said John Dunn, the city treasurer. "But we feel pretty confident we'll be pretty high on the list."
Manchester Essex is building a new $49 million middle/high school. The school, for grades 6 to 12, will hold 750 students. Town Meeting voters in both communities approved full funding for the project last year. The district is still looking for state help, though it isn't sure how much it may get.
The state "has been very clear with us on two things," said Sarah Hammond Creighton, chairwoman of the district's School Building Committee. "Under the law, they can't penalize us for going ahead. They'll treat us like everyone else. I can't say how much we could receive."
Although the state now plans to spend up to $2.5 billion on school projects over the next five years, it is clear that the perhaps $500 million allocated this year won't cover all the demands by local districts. That has several local officials worried.
"Five hundred million dollars sounds like a lot of money," said Danvers Town Manager Wayne P. Marquis. "But when you consider that there are [hundreds of] projects, and a brand new high school could cost $70 million, you can see how quickly that money could disappear."
"There are some very large projects out there now hoping to be funded," said the Saugus school superintendent, Keith R. Manville. "It depends on how many projects they choose, and how much they cost."
Some school officials say that with the intense competition, they could be in for a long wait.
"I hope we get funded this year, but I have to be practical," said Cronin, who has worked at Northeast since the school opened in 1970, two years after construction. "It could be five, six, seven, or eight years before we get a new school. I do think it's important that we get started in the process."
Northeast, which this summer is running cosmetology and plumbing shops for incoming freshmen, has taken steps to address building needs since its last accreditation five years ago by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. At that time, an accreditation team noted, "Many fixtures and hardware are beginning to be in major need of attention. The maintenance staff, while exhibiting incredible ingenuity and dedication, is beginning to lose this battle with time," according to a page of the report provided by school officials.
Northeast staff members often roll up their sleeves to make building improvements. Teachers built a career center and reception area this summer. They've also enlarged classrooms and shop space.
"Unlike other schools, we can handle some construction on our own," Cronin said. "But if we end up losing our boilers, that's not something we can fix."
John C. Drake of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com