State approves $321m for schools

15 districts get funds for projects

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 1, 2009

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State officials pitched in $321 million toward $660 million in school construction projects in 15 districts across the state yesterday in a move that Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill said would provide a boost to the state’s economy.

The plans approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority would combine the $321 million in state funding with local funding to build or renovate three high schools, three middle schools, and nine elementary schools, said the authority’s director, Katherine Craven. The schools serve about 1 percent of the state’s student population.

“It’s going to create a lot of jobs throughout the state and a lot of economic activity,’’ said Cahill, who chairs the authority and is running for governor.

The 15 towns and school districts that would benefit from the state funding have 120 days to garner local approval to fund the portions of the projects not covered by the state’s contribution.

One of the largest awards went to Wayland High School, where a total of $70.8 million is needed to renovate the 50-year-old building and construct two new buildings.

Concrete has fallen off parts of the school, and the building has no fire-suppressant sprinklers, said Lea Anderson, chairwoman of the Wayland High School Building Committee.

Anderson said the town has been trying to get money to renovate the school since 2003, but has been hindered by a moratorium on state funding for school construction. Without assurance that the state would help cover the cost of the project, Anderson said, Wayland voters would not approve the expenditure.

But yesterday the authority approved $25 million for the renovations, and Wayland voters will be asked at the polls in November to approve a debt exclusion override that would raise their taxes to pay for the rest of the school project.

Anderson said she is hoping voters will see the promise of $25 million in state money as too good to turn down.

“This is such a huge relief,’’ Anderson said.

While the authority approved the state portion of funding for school projects, Cahill stressed that school districts will not get their share of the money unless they get local approval for their respective projects.

In Needham, about $8.6 million in state funding would be used to upgrade heating and air conditioning systems at Newman Elementary School.

“It’s a very good day for Needham,’’ Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said.

Voters will consider an override to pay for the balance of the $27.4 million renovation.

While the project is expensive, Gutekanst said, it is needed because school officials believe the old heating and air conditioning system in the building was causing respiratory problems for some students and faculty members. Several teachers have been moved out of the building, and temporary heating and cooling systems are now being used in portions of the elementary school, Gutekanst said.

In other districts, the funding will be used to relieve overcrowding in the classrooms.

Brookline needs $29.8 million to pay for renovations and additions to the John D. Runkle Elementary School. The school serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and the additions will help relieve overcrowding in the district, Deputy Superintendent Peter Rowe said.

Deputy Town Administrator Sean Cronin said Brookline will not have to request a property tax override to fund the school project. Brookline will ask its Special Town Meeting in November to appropriate the funds it will contribute to the project.

Cahill said the authority has tried to coordinate its review and votes on the projects so that the agency would not slow the approval process.

The authority has approved funding for other ongoing projects around the state, including at Holyoke High and Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield. It also contributed state money to the $110 million Lawrence High School.

On Tuesday, Craven was in Wellesley, where the town broke ground on a $130-million high school. The authority agreed to fund $44 million, and voters approved an override last December to cover the rest.

“We look on this day with great pride, as it is another milestone in this long journey,’’ said Katherine Babson, chairwoman of the Wellesley School Building Committee.