By Megan Woolhouse, Globe Staff
This story was first published on July 26, 2007
NEWTON -- It seemed like a good idea at the time. Over the years, going back to the 1980s, Brian Yates and fellow Newton aldermen voted to sell off many of Newton's elementary school buildings. Now, though, as a recent consultant's report calls for the city to spend millions on new school construction, Yates is wincing.
As many as nine city schools -- enough classroom space to educate thousands of students -- were sold to developers who turned them into houses and condominiums. "It makes me sick every time I think of it," Yates said recently. "When I think about what we lost."
Call it seller's remorse, this sentiment on the part of public officials in Newton. Other communities across the state may be feeling it as well. Old schools sold to developers were converted into housing when the state's school-age population dipped. But with student numbers now on the rise, some communities are looking for space and funding to build anew.
Needham, which now suffers from extreme overcrowding, sold off many of its schools and now wants to build more. Waltham city officials declared five old schools "surplus" while building a handful of new schools at mostly state expense. In Framingham and Newton, local leaders have had to take back schools to ease space problems. Newton officials, who sold Carr elementary school in the 1980s for $350,000, bought the building back in 2000 for $2.1 million.
State government, which has paid much of the cost of new school construction, is now cracking down on the property shuffle. Officials of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will fund more than $3 billion in new school construction in the next five years, said they will also more closely scrutinize local construction proposals. Executive director Katherine Craven said school districts are now required to justify to state officials their reasons for selling schools.
The agency also recommends that school districts maintain ownership of surplus properties to prepare for unexpected population increases. Renovating those buildings is more economical than buying land and building from scratch. "We put tremendous value on existing foundations," Craven said. "That's a real commodity to us."
That was not the popular mindset 30 years ago. Old schools in cities and towns across the state were often viewed as outdated behemoths. Not only were they old, but they lacked parking and such modern amenities as cafeterias and auditoriums.
They were also increasingly empty in the 1970s.
The state's student population declined 7 percent between 1970 and 1980, according to census data. Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Planning Council, said classrooms went empty during those years. Draisen worked for former Boston mayor Kevin White at the time, helping that city sell off about 20 of its old schools to developers. "There were just [fewer] kids," he said. "Baby boomers were having smaller families and giving birth later."
Beginning in the 1970s, Newton officials decided to consolidate many schools. Memorial Elementary School, Murray Road Elementary School, Emerson, Hyde, Davis, and Carr closed and were sold in subsequent years as surplus.
The schools didn't disappear without a fight. Neighborhood activists protested the closures and demanded a referendum vote. Parents in Newton Highlands launched a "Save Our Hyde" campaign. Many wanted schools within walking distance from their homes. They also liked the smaller scale of neighborhood schools.
Alderman Paul Coletti, a board member since 1978, defended the closings, saying they saved the city an estimated $70 million in expenses. He said many of the schools were simply too small and lacked playing fields and parking. And the revenues helped the city get through the early years of Proposition 2 1/2.
But as the years passed, and the buildings remained empty, many became run-down. Former Mayor Theodore Mann used his considerable political clout to advocate for selling the schools. He persuaded aldermen to sell and solicited developers, who converted them to such uses as artists' lofts, condos, and affordable housing for seniors. Many were sold for less than top dollar. Although Mann referred to the sale of the Claflin school to artists as a "momentous occasion," the building situated on a former bird sanctuary fetched only $400,000.
Proceeds from some of the sales also helped fund his greatest legacy, a new public library next to City Hall that bears his name.
However, Newton's school population did not remain flat, growing unexpectedly until it reached 11,500 last year. To ease the space crunch, city officials bought back the Carr school in 2000 for $2.1 million. Coletti said it caused him to think twice about at least one school sale. "The one I really regret is Warren" Middle School, he said. "It was empty for 10 years and it didn't look like we needed a new middle school."
Yates said he also voted to sell Warren, and he also regrets it. "That was a big, big mistake," he said. "Frankly, if it burned to the ground, we'd still have the land and be in better shape today."
In Newton, the city broke ground this month on a $154-million high school to be paid for with city and state money, even as it faces crowding in some of its other schools.
A recent consultant's report commissioned by the School Committee found most Newton schools were enrolled over capacity. The study included a recommendation to build a new elementary school and, to accommodate 900 more middle school students expected in 10 years, two new middle schools.
To sell or not to sell school buildings still remains a hot topic in other communities.
In Marlborough, the city leases two of its old school buildings to private schools. At least once a year, city officials debate the merits of selling the properties. City Council president Arthur Vigeant advocates selling, saying municipal government should not be acting as a landlord.
Faced with declining enrollment in Framingham, town officials leased the Jonathan Maynard Elementary School in the 1970s. Jim Egan, director of buildings, said it was the beginning of a tortured saga. The building became uninhabitable after a tenant shut the heat off and the pipes froze. Abandoned for years, it was eventually converted into condos by a local developer, but the project went belly-up. Ownership reverted to the town, Egan said, yet condo tenants still lived there. "Lo and behold, we were in the real estate business," he said.
Today the building and land is assessed at $1.7 million and the town has no plans to let it go.
"Property is invaluable today," Egan added. "The fact that you don't need it this year, doesn't mean you won't two years from now."
In Waltham, city officials decided to sell or lease five schools named as surplus as recently as 2005. State funding has also paid for the bulk of the construction of several new schools in that community. City Councilor Patrick O'Brien, who chaired the surplus school committee, said the city was lucky to get state funding for the projects years back, before the state's reimbursement formula changed. "We got in under the wire," he said.
Like Newton, Needham sold many of its older elementary schools in the 1980s to developers. School Committee member Michael Greis said many schools in the district face severe overcrowding today. The town will apply for state funding in the next year to build a new middle school, but that poses a whole new set of problems. "We have . . . no place to build when we need something," Greis said. "We spend an awful lot of time thinking and worrying about it."
Relief may be on the way. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, after years of modest growth, school districts in greater Boston will likely see a decline in the number of school-age children after the year 2010.
Draisen said the predicted decline is not always welcome news, as communities bank on growth as a way to grab state funding for construction projects.
"People don't like to admit it, and they argue about it all the time," Draisen said. "But after a long, slow increase, we're likely to see another dip."
And for every remorseful seller, there may be a delighted buyer. Artist Scattergood-Moore, who lives in Newton's former Claflin school, said he struggled to find an affordable place to live for years. Now he lives and works in what was once a special education classroom.
"The city did a good thing," he said of the sale. "I really wanted to buy something and wasn't interested in renting and being at the whims of landlords."
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.