State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill says he is on a mission to bring “sanity and conformity” to school building projects across the commonwealth. In the process, he believes he can save taxpayers money.
State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill says he is on a mission to bring “sanity and conformity” to school building projects across the commonwealth.
In the process, he believes he can save taxpayers money.
Driven by sky-rocketing building costs in general, and controversial high school projects in Newton, Wellesley and Norwood, Cahill has just unveiled a program designed to give towns and cities the schools he believes they need at a price they can afford.
“We’re taking something that’s worked and is working and it is built at a reasonable price and I don’t see why people wouldn’t jump at it,” Cahill said Thursday. “And I’m hoping they will. And I’m confident that they will in the end and they won’t feel they were taken for a ride.”
In a meeting with GateHouse Media editors and reporters, Cahill discussed plans to make available a selection of preexisting school designs that can be built less expensively than a situation where a community needs to hire its own architect and start from scratch.
If the pilot program goes well, Cahill hopes to use it for middle schools and elementary schools.
“If we can rein in costs to such a degree, what we’re hoping to do is give schools more flexibility with the money they have to actually put in some of the unique characteristics that they want,” he said.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which Cahill chairs, reimburses towns 40 percent to 80 percent of their building costs. Many municipalities could not afford to build their own schools without that outside aid.
Under Cahill’s program, the MSBA and the community will choose a design whose effectiveness has already been proven. Cahill said that he will not exclude a community from state aid if it is determined that one of the preexisting designs is not feasible.
Cahill has repeatedly cited Newton North High School as an example of how a school project can grow out of a community’s control. Originally a $104 million project that has skyrocketed into a $197.5 million, the Newton project was approved for state funding before the MSBA was under the control of the state treasurer’s office.
Since the defeat of its $12 million override request in the spring, Newton has laid off public school teachers and left vacant police officer positions unfilled.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes over $197 million,” Cahill said of Newton North. “The city still doesn’t have a lot of control of its architect and builders.”
He said his model program is meant to prevent that from happening.
“Schools have become guinea pigs for architects who want to try new things. We’re staying away from as many fads as possible.”
Some have criticized the program, saying it will make all schools across the state look the same. Yet Cahill said schools do not necessarily have to be unique.
“We understand that one size doesn’t fit all but we do think at the same time, we don’t have to custom make each school to fit particular individual needs and we see that as one of the drivers of cost,” he said. “Generally our students across the board need to be treated as equally as we possibly can, regardless of what a community can afford to do.”
Norwood and Wellesley are already in negotiations with the MSBA regarding the pilot program. Both have made headlines after the treasurer criticized earlier high school plans for being overly expensive.
Wellesley will not be part of the model program due to site restrictions, however it will use elements of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School. Originally, the town submitted a $159 million all-new, 327,000 square feet high school plan to the MSBA. That plan was rejected and most recently, the state and the town have come to a tentative agreement that Wellesley will build a 280,000-square-feet school that costs between $100 million and $110 million.
Norwood, however, qualifies to be part of the program. Using a preexisting design, Norwood High School could be built for around $57 million, with the state paying around $43.5 million. Cahill said the MSBA will vote on Wellesley and may talk about Norwood at its next board meeting Aug. 8.
The treasurer is so confident his pilot model school program will work he’s staking his reputation on it.
“Our reputation, my reputation, depends on this and I’m not a faceless bureaucrat that is appointed by someone, I have to run for reelection every four years,” he said. “More will know who I am if this doesn’t work than will know who I am if this does work.”