Building education

Wayland, Wellesley to lead the way for area’s school projects

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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When new high schools open in Wayland and Wellesley this winter, they will be kicking off the largest wave of new high schools in area communities since the state lifted a moratorium on construction projects in 2007.

Next up are Natick High School, due for completion in June; Tahanto Regional Middle/High School, slated to open during the 2012-2013 school year, and Maynard High School, projected to come on line in the fall of 2013. Other area districts with new high schools working their way through the state’s funding pipeline include Ayer-Shirley, Concord-Carlisle, Franklin, Marlborough, and the Minuteman regional vocational system.

“The current school was built over 50 years ago,” said Lea Anderson, chairwoman of Wayland’s high school building committee. “It was just very small and crowded for the program we were offering. It had outlived its life expectancy.”

Wayland’s new high school will open in January, while Wellesley’s will open in February.

Like officials in other districts, Anderson praised the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which was created in 2003 to replace what many saw as a flawed system for providing funds for school construction projects.

By the state’s own account, the old system was “unsustainable.” It had accumulated more than $11 billion in debt and had 428 schools on its waiting list. Cities and towns often waited years to receive their first reimbursement payments.

“The whole program needed to be reformed,” said Matt Donovan, chief of staff for the building authority. “The oversight was lacking.”

Under the new system, which is funded through revenue derived from the state sales tax, authority officials work more closely with districts to ensure project budgets don’t get out of hand. The state also now pays reimbursements to districts as costs are incurred, rather than years later, a change the state says has already saved communities $2.9 billion in borrowing costs.

“This is a much more efficient system,” Anderson said. “The state would ask questions about every particular room, every storage space. They would push back, as was their responsibility.”

Anderson said Wayland officials and the state went back and forth over the high school’s projected enrollment, which helped determine how large of a facility to build.

“There was a lot of negotiating that went on in the early stages,” Anderson said. “I think we’re at a good place. I think we’re building a very appropriate, high-quality, but not fancy school.”

Another major difference between the old system and the new is the implementation of a model school program, which allows districts to speed up their projects and save on design costs by modeling their school on an already existing building.

Natick took advantage of the program, basing its new school on Whitman-Hanson Regional High. The same design was also used for Norwood High School, which will open this fall.

“For us, what was appealing was the time factor,” said Natick Superintendent Peter Sanchioni. “We were able to condense the construction time. Natick High School is in pretty rough condition, with a leaky roof and a poor heating system. We needed to vacate that building as quickly as possible.”

Although Natick is using another school’s template, the district has personalized its new high school, Sanchioni said. For example, Natick’s design eliminates computer labs and will instead give all of its students laptops so they can work at home as well. Also, the high school will house a preschool.

Cheryl Maloney, superintendent of Weston’s school system, has experience working both within the new state funding system and outside of it. The district is building a new elementary school through the state process, but didn’t seek state assistance for a $9 million addition to the high school because officials didn’t expect the state to help fund both projects.

As a result, Maloney said, she sees both the benefits of working with the state, and the nice points of working alone.

“The pros of working with the state are that you have many more experienced eyes looking at things along the way. They have a sense of what other towns are doing. That’s the positive, to have that input,” Maloney said. “The challenge is that you have to abide by their schedule. The board meets every other month. You might be ready to move forward, but you’re not on the agenda. Or even if you’re on the agenda, you may be sent back to do more work.”

In Maynard, officials explored options including renovation of the existing high school and partnering with neighboring towns for a regional school before settling on a replacement building.

“We had to demonstrate that we’re not just saying we need a new school. We looked at every possible alternative,” said Peter Dicicco, business manager for the district. “You don’t proceed lightly on things like this, because it’s an impact on the taxpayer. You want to make the best use of the money.”

“I feel like we did do our due diligence and explored every possibility,” Dicicco added. “The avenue that we ended up taking is truly the best for the town of Maynard.”

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