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WELLESLEY

Officials say school's cost still tentative

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Keen
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2008

Wellesley officials said they will wait until they meet with the state before further scaling back the town's $159 million plan for a new high school, which was criticized by a top official as an example of suburban excess.

Ten days ago, state Treasurer Timothy Cahill criticized the Wellesley plan, as well as the $197 million plan for a new Newton North High School, as excessively expensive. Cahill serves as chairman of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which administers state grants to local school projects.

School Building Authority executive director Katherine Craven said last week she will meet with Wellesley officials soon to discuss the project.

The new high school is being designed to serve 1,600 students, at a construction cost of about $99,103 per student - the second highest per-student price tag among 19 recent high school building projects in the state.

As Cahill criticized the Wellesley price tag, the School Building Authority approved Norwood's proposed new high school, which at a cost of $72,727 per student ranks as the fourth most expensive of the recent high school projects.

Norwood and Wellesley are among 161 school districts competing for $2.5 billion in state school building assistance over the next five years. Norwood's estimated cost for its new high school building is capped at $80 million, said Craven. The agency will reimburse the town for 51.1 percent of the cost - or about $41 million. Wellesley hopes to qualify for the minimum grant of 40 percent of its construction costs.

Wellesley officials say the price tag criticized by Cahill was a preliminary estimate and one the town already had begun to scale back. The School Committee last month reduced the design's gross square footage by about 4 percent. Also, about $10 million of the $159 million estimate represents costs that are not considered reimbursable by the state, such as temporary classrooms to address growing enrollment while construction is underway, officials said.

Selectwoman Katherine Babson, chairwoman of the town's School Building Committee, said Wellesley officials would not make any additional changes to the proposal until they have had a chance to meet with the School Building Authority.

"We're waiting for the meeting, and we're committed to working with the state," said Babson. "We want to hear their comments and reflect upon what they have to say."

"I think we need direct communication between the town and the MSBA to address issues which the treasurer raised," said state Representative Alice Peisch, whose district includes Wellesley. Peisch said she spoke at length with Cahill following his remarks at a Boston Chamber of Commerce forum on May 22, when he lambasted the Wellesley and Newton school projects. Peisch said she asked for a meeting with town and School Building Authority officials to ensure Cahill "knows exactly what Wellesley is contemplating."

Craven said the agency is looking forward to having the meeting soon, and hopes to do a walk-through of the existing high school building as well.

"We've only seen a price tag," Craven said of the Wellesley proposal.

Wellesley had hoped to present the details of its proposal at the School Building Authority's meeting on May 21. A town committee had for several years been holding public forums and vetting more than a dozen proposals for both all-new and renovation designs to address the increasing student population and deteriorating condition of the existing 70-year-old school building.

In a vote to choose a final design on May 15, most members of the committee supported an all-new option because its estimated cost was $15 million less than a proposal for a combination of renovation and new construction.

"No one is against cost reduction," said Peisch. "My objective here is just to figure out what is the best way to get a high school for the town that meets the community's need and is fiscally responsible. I'm sure we can do this."

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