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Schools vie for new building funds

State says unsafe, crowded facilities are top priorities

A teacher's leg plunged through the rotting floors at Parker Elementary School in Billerica in 2006. Bits of the theater ceiling at Medford High School have rained on attendees. At Beverly High, a concrete beam slipped out of place two years ago and blew out a window.

These schools are among 426 statewide competing for the first new school-construction money in four years, since a moratorium ended July 1. But state officials warn that even the hardest cases will have a tough time getting all the money they want for the coming school year. For the first time, the schools construction program has a fixed budget -- up to $500 million a year -- and the costs schools are requesting could add up to billions.

Officials said 161 school systems met Tuesday's deadline to solicit state aid to fix schools or build new ones next school year -- with the final request arriving by e-mail at 11 p.m. The Massachusetts School Building Authority will dispatch teams of engineers and architects to verify schools' assertions in coming months. By December, the state will pick schools that will receive funding next school year. Unsafe and crowded schools, especially in growing school systems, are top priority.

"There's no way that we can do them all in the first year," said state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, whose office oversees the authority.

State lawmakers created the authority in 2004 to oversee the school construction program after a building boom overwhelmed the state Department of Education, leading to more than $11 billion in costs, delayed payments to cities and towns, and requests for dubious expenses, such as golf carts for Chicopee High School.

About 23 percent of the state's 1,817 schools, more than 400, are in rough shape, according to a preliminary state survey in 2006.

Roughly half of the schools that requested state aid appeared to be in poor or fair condition, according to ratings in a preliminary survey the authority published last year. Others need routine fixes, such as new roofs or boilers, state officials said.

Some schools said their buildings' conditions were dangerous.

Briggs Elementary in Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District complained of poor ventilation and high carbon dioxide levels in some classrooms, which can cause headaches and respiratory problems. Classrooms at 's Gerry School, a primary school in Marblehead built in 1906, are rimmed with hot-water pipes covered with wood and chicken wire to prevent children from getting burned.

The schools were ranked among the worst in the state's survey of schools.

Parker Elementary School in Billerica, where three teachers stepped through rotting floor tiles over the past 15 years in different classrooms, was not among the worst schools on the state survey; it was 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the worst. But parents and teachers said they need a new building. The windows are too cloudy to see through, the music room smells like mud, and rainwater dribbles through the windows.

"You can see how rotted it is," said the principal, Barbara Wittenhagen, pointing to the cracked tiles. "It's an accident waiting to happen."

Poor building conditions are threatening the accreditations of high schools in Beverly, Uxbridge, and Southbridge, , officials say. All three schools are on probation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges because of their dilapidated buildings and other problems. In March 2005, a beam slipped out of place at Beverly High, popping out a window and sending a shower of concrete onto the floor.

"Clearly we need a new school," said the principal, Carla Scuzzarella. "We're hanging by a thread with our accreditation."

Several schools also complained about crowding.

Sturbridge said it doesn't have enough space to offer all-day kindergarten classes, one of Governor Deval Patrick's priorities. Central Elementary School in East Bridgewater said it should serve half the 846 students it has now. Mosier Elementary in South Hadley teaches special education students in former storage rooms.

Cahill warned that the authority will scrutinize schools' construction plans from the start. The state will not pick up the tab for field houses or other extravagances, for instance, he said. Authority officials will verify schools' assertions that their enrollments are growing, justifying a demand for new classrooms.

"We will watch the bottom line. There's not enough money to go around if everyone gets everything," said Cahill.

By law, the state must set aside the total cost of the construction for schools that are selected this year, but cities and towns will not get the money all at once, said Katherine Craven, executive director of the school building authority. Cities and towns could see state funding as early as March for minor projects, such as a new roof or boiler, she said. But payments for new buildings will match the pace of construction, which she said could take years.

Ultimately, the state will pick up between 40 percent and 80 percent of the cost of new construction, repairs, or major renovations, depending on what the cities and towns can afford to chip in. Schools can earn extra money by maintaining their buildings or constructing environmentally friendly schools.

In the past the state paid for school construction by allocating funds every year in the state's budget, which did not impose a limit on spending but failed to guarantee that schools would receive state payments swiftly. Now the authority has a fixed source of revenue -- up to 1 percent of the 5 percent sales tax a year.

School officials say they are aware the state is imposing new rule, but said they would pursue the projects they believe are best for their communities.

Berkley, a town of nearly 6,000, wants its own junior/senior high school, the first ever for the K-8 system. The system pays to send students to schools in other towns. Superintendent Thomas Lynch said he thinks the state would discourage the town from building because they are a small school system with 1,000 students. But he hoped the state would cover most of the $35 million to $50 million cost to build the school.

"I believe we could do it," said Lynch. "It would be a place that the townspeople, and the students especially, could call their own."

In Billerica, parents gathered July 12 to refurbish the dingy library at Parker Elementary, with money they raised at a casino night fund-raiser. As they brushed blue paint on the walls, parents said it was hard not to feel envious of a brand-new school in another part of town.

"It is a palace," said Rita McCarron, copresident of the school's parent-teacher organization. "Not that they don't deserve it. But we deserve it, too."

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