Towns face hefty bills for new, renovated schools
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.
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Problems at the Pickering include outdated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; accessibility problems; and damage from water leaks.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.”
PROJECTS IN THE WORKSLYNN
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.