Paul working for you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Towns face hefty bills for new, renovated schools

Towns face hefty bills for new, renovated schools

Taxpayers across the region north of Boston are being asked to open their wallets as aging schools and growing student populations push cities and towns to explore building new schools or renovating existing buildings.

Projects range from a $34 million one to renovate Pine Grove Elementary School in Rowley to a $256 million plan for a new Somerville High School.

“Construction costs are high,” said Catherine Latham, Lynn’s school superintendent. “The lack of availability of construction trades and manpower has had a big impact on the cost of building projects. Contractors downsized back in 2008 [during the recession], and the capacity has not yet returned.”

Despite that shortage, a large number of projects are in the pipeline.

Lynn wants to add a new middle school in West Lynn and replace the 1916 Pickering Middle School. Nearby, Saugus is planning a new combination middle/high school. And Ipswich is looking to replace two small elementary schools with one large new school.
Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Superintendent Bill Hart and principal Sheila McAdams at the current Winthrop School in Ipswich.

School building projects in Amesbury, Danvers, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Marblehead are in earlier stages of planning. The Pentucket Regional School District (Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury) has a feasibility study underway for a new high school.

The burden of building does not fall solely on local taxpayers. The state provides significant financial aid through the Massachusetts School Building Authority. To qualify for funding, there is an intensive multiyear, nine-step process that includes a feasibility study, schematic design, budget review, funding approval, and final audit.

Funding for eligible expenses starts with a base rate of 31 percent that may be increased based on socioeconomic factors, including community income, property wealth, and the school district’s proportion of low-income students.

There are additional incentives for energy efficiency and the renovation and reuse of existing facilities.

The maximum reimbursement rate is nearly 80 percent.

To pay their share of these large capital projects, cities and towns must get voters to approve Proposition 2½ debt exclusions that allow for a property tax increase for the number of years it takes to pay off the cost.

On March 14, Lynn voters will decide on a debt exclusion of about $188 million for two new schools that would carry a gradual 25-year increased cost to taxpayers, with a maximum of $197 per year for owners of the average single-family home. The MSBA is expected to cover $97 million of the cost.
Lynn first approached the MSBA seeking to replace the century-old Pickering School, but after identifying rapid student growth in West Lynn, the state agency encouraged Lynn to look at applying for two new schools. The MSBA has projected middle school enrollment in Lynn will grow from the current 3,117 students to 3,725 by 2019.

Problems at the Pickering include outdated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; accessibility problems; and damage from water leaks.

In November, Somerville voters approved a progressive tax increase for the most expensive high school ever built in the state. To fund about $130 million of the city’s projected $137 million share of the project, the tax increase goes from $4 per average single-family home in 2018, peaking at about $300 in 2027 and gradually falling to zero in 2054.

Somerville High was originally built in 1894.

In Saugus, Town Manager Scott Crabtree is still calculating the cost of a new middle/high school. “We are working on several scenarios for borrowing, with debt options between 20 and 30 years,” he said. “We have another debt exclusion that will be retired in a few years, and we need to see how that plays into the scenarios.”

Even with MSBA reimbursement rates ranging from 46 percent in Ipswich to 80 percent in Lynn, local property owners must shoulder a weighty tax increase.

Rowley voters will be asked to approve a debt exclusion of about $18 million for the Pine Grove School at Town Meeting on May 1. If it’s approved, voters also would have to pass it during a townwide election the following week.

The impact to taxpayers has not yet been determined because the project may include site work that is not reimbursable by the MSBA. The total cost could be closer to $38 million than $34 million, according to Rowley Town Administrator Deborah Eagan.

“Getting voter approval is critical. It is essential that we get the word out,” said Joseph Perry, chairman of the Rowley Board of Selectman and School Building Committee. “If voters do not approve the override, then the town will lose the MSBA funding.

“We cannot put off this renovation. The entire emergency repair budget for this fiscal year has been spent with five months to go.”

Problems at Pine Grove School, built in 1954, include drafty windows and doors that leak water into the building along with outdated plumbing, heating, and electrical systems.

“We had an electrician in and learned we are at capacity,” said Brian Forget, superintendent of the Triton Regional School District. “We cannot add even one more outlet or accommodate 21st century technology.”

Ipswich first looked at replacing the 1956 Winthrop School, but the town’s other elementary, the Doyon, built in 1965, also needs repairs that will cost millions. The MSBA suggested that Ipswich consider a combined elementary school. Eventually, a plan to build one new elementary school for 775 students on the site of the Winthrop School was submitted and approved by the MSBA.

Ipswich anticipates seeking voter approval in the fall. The projected tax impact on single-family homeowners is between $450 and $500 annually.

While the focus is on buildings, the MSBA looks first at the educational needs of a school district.
“We are extremely pleased with how our architectural team has supported our educational plan in this building project,” said William Hart, Ipswich superintendent. “MSBA was effusive in their praise for how our building plan aligned with our educational plan.”

In the gym at at the Pine Grove Schoo​l in Rowley: Barrels to catch rain leaking from the roof, cones and mats to keep students away from the water, and towels along the bottom of the outside doors to keep water from leaking in. (handout)
In the gym at at the Pine Grove School in Rowley, barrels catch water leaking from the roof, cones and mats keep students away from the water, and towels along the bottom of the outside doors keep snow out.


Replace Pickering Middle School (built in 1916)
Cost: About $84 million
West Lynn Middle School, new construction to address increased enrollment
Cost: About $105 million
MSBA reimbursement rate for eligible expenses: 79.6 percent
Projected tax impact for average single-family home: gradual increase over 25 years to a maximum of $197 per year
Special election: March 14

Renovation of Pine Grove Elementary (built in 1954)
Cost: About $34 million
MSBA reimbursement rate for eligible expenses: 48.5 percent
Projected tax impact for average single-family home: TBA
Town Meeting vote/general election: May 1/May 9

New townwide elementary school to replace the Doyon (built in 1965) and Winthrop (1956) schools
Cost: About $67 million
MSBA reimbursement rate for eligible expenses: 45.7 percent
Projected tax impact for average single-family home: between $450 and $500 annually, number of years TBA
Town Meeting/general election: Fall 2017

Middle/high school, new construction
Current high school: built 1954
Approximate cost: $161 million
MSBA reimbursement rate for eligible expenses: 52.7 percent
Projected tax impact for an average single-family home: TBA
Town Meeting/general election: June

High school, new construction
Built: 1894
Approximate cost: $256 million
MSBA reimbursement rate for eligible expenses: 75 percent
Projected tax impact for an average single-family home: progressive, from $4 per household in 2018, peaking at about $300 in 2027, ending at $0 in 2054
Approved by voters November 2016

SOURCES: Cities and towns; Mass. School Building Authority
Linda Greenstein can be reached


  1. What do the communities of Lynn, Ipswich, Rowley, Saugus and Somerville have in common? Beside the need for new schools?

    All of these communities have a BOND RATING!

    OMG! What a friggin' concept! To make sure your community has the ability to pay back debt BEFORE asking the voters to weigh in on a massively expensive capital project like a new school. OMG!

    1. Shame on the MSBA, for not checking to make sure Templeton was in any position to even be able to pay for a new school. Where has our school committee been all of this time ? With their heads in the sand ? It certainly been no secret that our Town has had significant financial problems for long enough, for people to notice unless they have been on Mars.

    2. All of these town's listed have one other thing our town does not have ! Try businesses and industry to help with the tax base.

  2. I have an idea!!!!! How about we just follow our own by-laws for a change. That would be a good start.

    If committees or boards members dont show, replace them. If quorums aren't reached replace. If no activity is made to fill boards and committees replace BOS.
    I'm not a legal scholar, but it appears this entire process over the past couple years has been run in opposition tot the towns bylaws.
    How did these capital improvements get anywhere since they were not on the capital plan as required by our bylaws? How did that requirement get bypassed? Has the Capital planning committee citizens seat ever been filled or advertised as empty? If not is this intentional, whose responsible to fill seats? No quorums, why no action?

    Sorry, got a little off..........

  3. Just noticed something on the BOS page on towns website. I think it kinda goes to the heart of the problem. This is the line:

    "As the elected leaders of Templeton, we would like to welcome you to our virtual home" Someone thinks they were elected as "leaders" and not as "representatives" of our town. They were elected to administrate our towns business, not "Lead" us anywhere.

    I don't believe they have done their job!

    My 2 cents

  4. funding approval
    Now there a step we should have had done better

  5. Todays Gardner News.............. "Gansett could face teacher cuts"

  6. They spent all there money on wood chips and propane Don't you all remember the cost of heating oil will never go down !!!