SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 1, 2013

State school building projects on backlog

From Wire and Staff Reports
The Salem News

---- — BOSTON — The Massachusetts School Building Authority has spent $10 billion and nearly retired the financial obligations of its predecessor since its inception in 2004, but there is no dearth of projects still awaiting funding, state Treasurer Steven Grossman said.

“We’ve cleared the bulk of the more than $10 billion of old waiting-list projects. These were projects that have been in the pipeline for a long time,” Grossman told reporters after a celebration of the school construction funding.

“But we had 201 statements of interest submitted this year from school districts all over the commonwealth,” he added. “We’ll only be able to fund a fraction of those, because we have a statutory limit of about half a billion dollars a year that we can put into new projects, so there’s a huge, pent-up demand.”

In a ceremony in the State House, Rep. John Rogers, D-Norwood, was singled out for his work in crafting legislation that reorganized what many saw as runaway spending on a school building assistance program within the Department of Education. Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat, said that at the time, the state was spending $440 million per year on the financing.

The reform was supported by former Treasurer Tim Cahill, who left office after losing an independent gubernatorial bid to Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010, and was signed into law by former Gov. Mitt Romney.

According to the MSBA, the program has saved cities and towns $2.9 billion in avoided local interest costs and has nearly completed the $5.1 billion in debt payments and $5.4 billion in “wait-list projects” approved by the Department of Education under the old system.

“Of the $10.5 (billion), we have retired $9.3 billion of that debt. It was very overwhelming that we were able to get that done, and of the projects that we inherited, 98 percent of those are done and audited,” said MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy.

The new system shuttles one penny of the 6.25 percent sales tax to the MSBA, whose board, run by the state treasurer, decides whether and at what fixed amount the state will fund school projects.

“I’ve never seen a piece of legislation that really benefitted the taxpayers as much as this,” McCarthy said.

Among the projects currently in the MSBA pipeline is Gloucester’s estimated $30 million project for a new West Parish School. The MSBA board has given approval to city and school officials for its design plan — which calls for a three-story, kindergarten to grade-5 facility that will house 18 classrooms for West Parish’s 360 students. And according to the MSBA formula, the city would receive reimbursement of 48 percent of the project’s cost.

The Manchester Essex Regional School District, meanwhile, is also looking toward a project to upgrade its Memorial and Essex elementary schools, though the district has not yet applied to the MSBA and has not decided whether a project might entail building a new, single elementary school at an undefined site near the towns’ boundaries, or renovating each of the current schools — the choice of residents who took part in a recent online survey.

On the state level, officials have recently highlighted capital improvement needs in the courts and water systems, as well as transportation, which benefitted from a tax law passed this summer. Grossman said that while those needs are important, he sees no end to the need for school improvements.

“For the foreseeable future, the one penny on the sales tax going toward school construction, new schools, renovated schools, new roofs, boilers and windows is absolutely critical,” said Grossman, who added that some of the schools that are struggling most academically have great architectural needs, as well.

He said, “I’ve been in schools in the last month, which were built in the early 20th century, that are in frightful condition.”

Senate leaders have proposed funding new water infrastructure improvements, in part, by allowing the state to borrow up to $50 million more per year for local projects.