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.
Superintendent Mark Mason has a grand vision for the 91-year-old Gates Intermediate School in Scituate: steam pipes that don't burst, bricks that don't crumble off the facade, and rain that doesn't pour through the wooden window panes when a northeaster roars through this seaside town.
But Mason's plans extend beyond brick and mortar. He also wants to foster a stronger sense of community at this seventh- and eighth-grade school by bringing in the sixth grade and possibly the fifth grade with a new addition. The plan, Mason believes, would alleviate crowding at the district's four elementary schools.
In years past, Scituate school leaders and voters would have had some leeway in implementing Mason's vision. But now, under new rules for doling out state money, the state promises to scrutinize the cost and rationale well before a project is designed.
The state's new role -- intended to prevent frivolous spending of limited state taxpayer dollars -- could have far-reaching implications for Scituate and the nearly 30 other school districts south of Boston that have expressed interest in funding for school construction projects.
In Scituate, the state could determine that a new Gates School wing is excessive because it might leave too many elementary school classrooms empty.
In Norwood, the state is wading into the polarizing debate of whether to knock down an 81-year-old high school, with its stately columns and clock tower, and build a new school.
Already in Plymouth, the state has told the district to choose between a Plymouth High School North or South project, even though voters last September approved raising their property taxes to pay for both.
There is a lot of competition for state money. "All I can hope for is to make our case clearly and hope that the state listens to it seriously," Mason said.
One thing is clear: The requests far outstrip the funding available. The state has up to $500 million to spend this school year on school construction reimbursements, which typically amount to between 40 percent and 80 percent of overall cost. But the requests, if taken together, would total many times that amount.
The state School Building Authority, which is overseen by the treasurer's office, plans to decide by year's end which projects to pursue.
The state, in spite of its bolstered powers, says it will work in a partnership with the state's 330 districts in search of a solution to building woes, which run the gamut of crumbling schools to overcrowded classrooms to 1960-era science labs.
"When state money is involved, the state should be an equal partner," said Katherine Craven, executive director of the authority, later adding, "A district that disagrees with us can go forward on their own without state money."
Sometimes, she says, "overcrowding can be in the eye of the beholder."
Technically, under the new process, districts shouldn't have a specific solution in mind. Much like a sick person seeking help from a doctor, districts initially fill out an application summarizing building ills and past attempts to fix it. No where does the application ask for a remedy.
The School Building Authority then dispatches new teams of specialists: architects, engineers, electricians, and a host of others, who go into the districts and diagnose problems. The teams look at all schools in the district as well as future enrollment trends. That way, for instance, districts won't be able to expand when there are empty classrooms nearby.
However, many districts, such as Norwood and Plymouth, already are pitching solutions because in many cases they began planning before the state set a moratorium on construction aid four years ago. Unaware how dramatically the rules would change, they pushed ahead with sometimes-controversial projects.
In Norwood, where the state dispatched its first inspection teams earlier this year, groups in favor and against demolishing the high school have peppered the building authority with thick packets of promotional materials. "We felt our message was made clear and they understood where we were coming from," said Sean Dixon, a spokesman for the Norwood Common Sense Committee, which argues the old school "is part of our history and every young man and woman who has graduated from there deserves to have it preserved."
While new school advocates have had momentum in Norwood -- with Town Meeting last year approving $6 million to design a new school -- preservationists may have more sway. The agency encourages renovation and expansion by offering an extra 5 percent in reimbursement.
"The facade of that building is beautiful," Craven said of Norwood High School, but she added the agency hasn't made a decision on preservation.
Norwood schools Superintendent Edward Quigley said he believes the authority will be objective. He said the district originally pursued preservation, but found it too expensive. The school suffers from a litany of problems, including 44-year-old science labs, poor ventilation, and tiny classrooms.
"From what I can tell, they've been very thorough," Quigley said. "They crawl into things, around things, and under things."
Dedham is among the districts advocating for preferred solutions on their state applications. After detailing the woes at the 86-year-old Avery School, from clanking boiler pipes to no cafeteria, officials wrote, "Basically, the building needs to be replaced."
Many districts, though, have no solutions. Braintree school officials are weighing $50 million in capital projects against a plan to replace aging buildings. The district hasn't built a new school since 1972.
"Do we keep sinking more money in roofs and windows or do we start rebuilding schools with additions so they are ready for 2007 as opposed to 1951?" asked Peter Schafer, Braintree's incoming superintendent.
In Hanover, where officials are debating the merits of building a new high school or renovating and expanding the old, Superintendent Kristine Nash said the district is keeping an open mind as it works with the state.
While the state deliberates, some districts are making major repairs to address public safety concerns. Districts can ask the state for retroactive reimbursement for such projects, but funding is not guaranteed.
In Scituate, scaffolding covers the Gates School facade, as work crews shore up the bricks and replace the slate roof.
Mason keeps one of the building's fallen bricks on his desk so he remains focused on fixing the school. Before repairs, he said, "There were nights I would wake up worried a kid would get hit on the head with pieces of slate or a brick."
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com.