Aired February 2, 2023.
A look at the plans for construction and financing Pollard Middle School, High Rock, and Mitchell Elementary in the near future.
reported by Yuxiao Yuan
At its meeting on January 17th, the school committee discussed starting the application process with the Massachusetts School Building
Authority, or MSBA, for the Pollard and Mitchell School projects this April. The MSBA works with districts to reimburse a portion of school building repair or construction costs. Submitting a statement of interest is only the first step in potentially getting some financial assistance from the state. Because there is no guaranteed money, town and district leaders need to prepare other local funding options.
To address the overcrowding and the deteriorating physical conditions at multiple schools, the school committee approved a school facilities master plan last year seeking to rebuild the Mitchell Elementary School, expand the Pollard School to accommodate all sixth through eighth grade and renovate High Rock to be the district’s sixth elementary school. The town boards involved in this discussion believe the best order of construction is Pollard, High Rock and Mitchell, to avoid the additional costs of building temporary modular structures. The estimated cost of all three projects is over 300 million.
At the school committee meeting, committee member Andrea Longo Carter expressed her favor in moving forward with the Master Plan, even knowing it is unlikely to receive the state aid for both Pollard and Mitchell projects. She also says the town needs to prepare enough local funding sources to cover the costs of the plan. “I think it’s going to be absolutely critical that we have a Plan B ready and that we are ready to go and we know exactly what the next steps will be if we are not invited to participate [in the MSBA application process], because we cannot then say, ‘Oh well, we’ll try again next year, and we’ll try again next year.’, and wait and wait and wait until we are accepted. Because, again, the ‘hope and pray’ eventually is going to stop working for us.”
“I don’t want to underestimate the lift that this will be for the community,” agreed member Michael Gries.”But the reality is: the reality of the situation we’re in, is the situation we’re in. We have these projects that have to get done. The problem is not going to go away if we ignore it. It’s not going to go away. If we push it out several more years, it’s going to get worse for all the reasons you’ve said. But also, quite frankly, financially. Trying to separate the projects makes it worse, and also, quite frankly makes it more costly. This is the best alternative.”
The MSBA receives hundreds of applications in the spring every year, and usually by December districts will know if they are invited into the next phase. A benefit of working with the MSBA is each project can potentially receive 20 to 30% reimbursement, but it is unlikely the MSBA will support both Pollard and Mitchell projects. Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Anne Gulati said the MSBA has indicated reducing new invitations due to rising construction costs. “Because there are a limited number of dollars to go around and the projects are so much more expensive than they had been just a few years ago.”
In 2022, after 54 applications for new construction and renovation, the MSBA decided to collaborate with only 10 districts. On top of that, Gulati said, because Needham just finished the Sunita Williams Elementary School,which was built to replace the aged-out Hillside School with MSBA’s assistance, the likelihood for the Authority to fund another two major projects this soon would be low.
“The MSBA seeks to spread its available dollars among all the communities in the Commonwealth. The fact that we were just reimbursed for Sunita might not work in our favor.”
The districts can choose to apply again for the denied projects, but that would also lead to more expenditures on maintenance, which is usually higher for aging facilities. “As all of this is going on the buildings are aging a little bit more and additional money needs to get planned and programmed to keep them operational. So it’s all kind of a balancing act.”
Town boards and staff are still in the process of putting forward a financing strategy, and there’s a lot for them to contemplate. At some point, the town may have to decide to raise its debt ceiling for a certain number of years, a move that is not unprecedented. Also, there is the consideration that funds may be available from taxes generated through future commercial growth, for example, the Highland Innovation Center development at the former Muzi site. There is also the possibility that Needham residents could support a temporary tax override, which would require a simple majority referendum. According to Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst,
the community may expect an update on their strategy at the Annual Town Meeting in May.