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Belmont, Medford to get funds for school projects

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brenda J. Buote and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 29, 2008

As the school year draws to a close, most educators are wrapping up projects and preparing to wind down for the summer. Not so in Belmont, where officials are looking forward to shifting into high gear after learning that the Massachusetts School Building Authority will help the town draft design plans for a new Wellington Elementary School.

Belmont was one of only two communities in this area to get the go-ahead from the School Building Authority at its meeting last week. Medford got the green light for a smaller project, an assessment of the high school to determine the extent of needed repairs.

The two projects were among eight statewide that got the nod from the authority's board last week. They had been among 83 projects selected in November as leading candidates for funding.

To date, Belmont is one of a handful of communities in the Commonwealth to receive final approval for construction of a new school since the 2004 creation of the School Building Authority. In April, the agency approved plans for Hingham to build a new elementary school, and last week Norwood secured the state's blessing to move forward with its plans to design a new high school.

According to Katherine Craven, executive director of the School Building Authority, the projects that were approved last week stood out among the many competing proposals her agency reviewed, not only because they were in dire need, but also because local officials exercised fiscal constraint and approached the projects with taxpayers in mind.

She noted that Wellington Elementary is beyond repair. The school, constructed in three phases in 1938, 1962, and the 1970s, was originally built to house high school students. Today, it serves as an elementary school for 423 students.

Craven said the School Building Authority ruled out renovation of the building because Wellington is unable to serve its proper purpose. Simply put, the school cannot meet the academic needs of the youngsters enrolled there.

"It wouldn't be cost effective to renovate that building to today's standards," she said.

Belmont is hopeful the state will fund as much as 40 percent of the total cost of the new school, estimated last year at $45 million. The authority covers 40 to 80 percent of a project's eligible expenses, depending on the wealth of the town and other factors.

Using a conservative state reimbursement rate of 33 percent of the total cost, town treasurer Floyd Carman has said Belmont's share could cost taxpayers $325 a year. Voters would be asked to support the project with a debt exclusion override.

In Medford, officials are assessing the high school to determine the extent of needed repairs. The school, built in the 1970s, houses 1,331 students. According to Craven, the building is well maintained but needs several big-ticket items, including a new boiler system, roof, and windows.

Craven praised Medford's decision to make repairs to the high school, saying the plan to renovate rather than replace the building is in line with her agency's guidelines. The agency considers construction of a new school the last resort, preferring instead to renovate older buildings to save taxpayers money.

"In order to keep these buildings in stock, it's vital we help them," she said.

Craven's comments echo statements made by state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who last week warned communities to keep the cost of projects reasonable or risk losing millions of dollars in reimbursements.

Cahill, who serves as chairman of the agency, is calling on communities to rein in spending on capital projects, given the current economic climate, when many taxpayers are having trouble making ends meet, never mind funding tax increases to pay for elaborate construction projects.

To help hold costs down, the School Building Authority is considering revising its design standards to give communities a prototype for what it views as reasonable for new schools seeking state support.

Meanwhile, 12 other projects in this area - in Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Concord, Dracut, Littleton, North Reading, Tewksbury, Winchester, and Woburn - that earned a priority designation last fall are hoping to advance soon.

The authority could take action on those projects at its next meeting, scheduled for July 28.

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at bbuote@globe.com.

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