I understand that some concern has been expressed about the state of K-8 school facilities. As a member of a 1999-2000 ad hoc committee that studied the K-8 school buildings, and as Vice-Chair of the Building Committee for the Lincoln Street School renovation / expansion completed in 2016, I may be able to shine some light on this topic.
- Northborough’s Proctor, Peaslee, and Lincoln Street elementary schools were built over a short span 1956-1965 during the Baby Boom era, and by the early 1990’s were approaching end of expected life and in need of capital improvements.
- Northborough residential housing growth in the 1980-90’s increased school enrollments and challenged the space capacity of the then-three elementary school buildings, prompting the renovation of Proctor in 1995 and acquisition and renovation of a fourth elementary school, Zeh, in 1998. The space added by these projects allowed Kindergarten programs, then housed in the Middle School, to return to the elementary schools and restored capacity in the Middle School.
- A 1999-2000 ad hoc committee for the K-8 schools studied the condition of the remaining schools, prioritizing Lincoln Street, then Peaslee, then the Middle School.
- No further K-8 school building work took place in the 2000’s as the Town was grappling with the complex political process to gain approvals from both Northborough and Southborough for renovation and expansion of Algonquin Regional High School, followed by the funding and construction for that project.
- In the late 2000’s the K-8 school administration began applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for approval of a school construction grant for renovation and expansion of Lincoln Street School, and finally received approval in 2012.
- The Lincoln Street renovation / expansion was completed in 2016 on time and $1.38M under budget, and benefited from a $10M MSBA state grant.
- Notably, the percentage of state grant for Lincoln Street was about 40% of project cost, down considerably from the 66% reimbursement Northborough enjoyed under the former School Building Assistance Bureau two decades earlier. The state’s overhaul of the grant program (supplanting SBAB with MSBA) in the early-2000’s to address the widespread demand for school construction grants resulted in the program becoming less generous in its awards, thus requiring more local tax dollars to fund a project.
- Interleaved with these school projects, other capital projects were undertaken to address other community needs and constituencies: the Gale Library renovation / expansion, the new Senior Center, the Assabet Valley Regional Technical School renovation / expansion (comparatively small based on Northborough’s low proportion of enrollment), and the new Fire Station (currently in progress).
- Although Peaslee and Melican have not yet been addressed by renovation, they also have not been ignored. From FY2007 through FY2020, Town Meeting appropriated $4.7M of funding for capital projects to repair and maintain the K-8 schools, including roof replacements, boiler replacements, window replacements, floor refurbishments, communications and security systems, technology, and furnishings. Some of these projects were partially reimbursed by the MSBA’s Major Repair grant program.
So, over a 20-year span, the Town has renovated and expanded five of the seven school buildings in which it has an interest, and continues to make major capital investments in all of them.
Two more points to make:
- A significant pivot point in the Lincoln Street School project came at the construction bid phase. Town Administrator John Coderre recognized a potential bidder to be a “bad actor”, one with a track record of bidding low to win the business, then understaffing the project and causing delay , and inflating cost with numerous change orders. The Town Administrator made a successful appeal to the state to disqualify this bad actor; and subsequently the winning bidder was a company of excellent reputation. The project was completed on time, under budget, with high quality, and with ridiculously few change orders for a project of this scale. Had the Town Administrator not taken this action, the outcome of the project in terms of time, quality, and cost would likely have been much less favorable, even adverse.
- Given the high cost of of school construction, it is financially untenable to undertake a project without first getting approval for grant assistance from MSBA. The number of projects across the Commonwealth are many, and the demand for this funding is high. The success of the Lincoln Street School project gives the Town much credibility with MSBA that a subsequent project will be well executed; but it is not within the Town’s control to choose the timing at its own convenience. Further, the level of assistance from MSBA grants has diminished over the last two decades, and the Town must be prepared to bear a greater share of cost than was the case for past projects.
Finally, about that 1999-2000 ad hoc Feasibility Study Committee (FSC), charged by the K-8 School Committee to examine the condition of the three remaining K-8 schools (Lincoln Street, Peaslee, and the Middle School) and make recommendations for treatment. I joined the committee as a parent representative of the Peaslee district and wound up serving as report editor. A copy of the February 2000 FSC final report is here, not that anyone will be much interested in it 20 years later.