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NEWTON

Concern rises on North's price tag

State official seeks progress reports

Email|Print| Text size + By Rachana Rathi
Globe Staff / December 9, 2007

Two key state officials are expressing alarm over the management of the Newton North High School building project, with one complaining the city has failed to send monthly progress reports to the School Building Authority.

The state authority is expected to provide about $46.6 million of the cost of the new school, which latest estimates peg at $171 million. As part of paying that share, the authority last year asked that Newton report regularly on the project. The funds could be jeopardized if the work is not "substantially complete" by July 1, 2009.

"If the project falls behind or if they say this is unaffordable, they need to inform us," Katherine Craven, executive director of the School Building Authority, said in an interview with the Globe. "The money we are holding onto for Newton could go to someone else."

Craven's concerns - and separate critical comments by the state treasurer - were voiced days after new estimates surfaced suggesting the cost of the new school could rise from $154 million to as much as $171 million. One aldermen is suggesting a "no-confidence" vote aimed at Mayor David Cohen's administration, and others want a special watchdog committee to oversee the project.

Craven said the city agreed to provide the building authority with monthly progress reports on construction and costs when she met last December with Cohen and the city's Board of Aldermen. In the months since, Craven said, she has learned from media reports about cost overruns and problems such as the discovery of asbestos and an underground ledge on the construction site.

"Anything that throws them off the plan should be something they should be telling us about to preserve the $46.6 million," she said. "Eventually, they are going to ask us for money for the project. We do have an obligation to know what's going on with the project because it's the state taxpayers' money that's being spent on it.

"We were willing to be flexible with Newton," she said. "If Newton hits their own benchmarks, we'd be happy with that. But it doesn't appear to be happening."

City spokesman Jeremy Solomon said Newton has not sent monthly progress reports to the building authority and was "unaware of how much detail the building authority wants to know." He said city officials will have a conversation with Craven to resolve the issue.

"Of course, informing the School Building Authority is very important, as their funding is very important to the city," Solomon said Thursday. "We need perhaps to be more diligent."

In a separate interview, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who serves as chairman of the School Building Authority, also questioned how the project was being managed, saying it may become a "poster child" for problems with the state's old school construction program.

In an effort to revamp the system, the School Building Authority was set up by the Legislature in 2004, and is designed to force districts to justify their requests for money. The funding for the Newton North project was approved under the old system.

Solomon said the mayor plans to provide a new cost estimate and financing plan next month. That is an earlier timetable than Cohen laid out during a heated meeting with aldermen on Monday. There, the mayor told the board he would not provide a new estimate until the guaranteed maximum price had been negotiated with the project manager, likely to be May.

Aldermen say they are getting heat from constituents about the rising costs and overall management of the project.

The board's Finance Committee is considering forming an ad hoc subcommittee to review the project's contracts and documents, and make frequent status reports to the board, said Alderman Richard Lipof.

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