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State will study school proposals

Step is first in process of approving funding

Timothy P. Cahill, head of the School Building Authority, will announce on Nov. 2 which proposed projects to study first. Timothy P. Cahill, head of the School Building Authority, will announce on Nov. 2 which proposed projects to study first. (GEORGE RIZER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2007)

The state will begin feasibility studies for local school projects about a month earlier than anticipated, potentially allowing some projects to be ready for Town Meeting votes next spring.

On Nov. 2, the state School Building Authority will decide which school districts' proposed projects to study first. Other districts will be selected on a rolling basis after that.

Being selected for a feasibility study doesn't automatically guarantee construction funding, but it is a prerequisite.

More than a dozen school districts west of Boston are among 161 districts statewide competing for about $500 million in construction funds this year.

It's the first time in four years the state is doling out school construction money.

"Some school systems have been waiting a long time for a project," said Timothy P. Cahill, state treasurer and chairman of the School Building Authority.

In choosing which feasibility studies to pursue first, the state has been dispatching inspection teams to analyze building conditions and enrollment trends, visiting 90 districts so far. Those districts include Berlin-Boylston, Franklin, Hopkinton, Hudson, Marlborough, Maynard, Nashoba, Natick, Needham, Norfolk, Shrewsbury, Wayland, and Wellesley.

The feasibility studies will identify potential solutions, along with the cost of fixing aging buildings or remedying school crowding. Solutions could include renovations, building additions, new schools, or changing grade configurations of a district's schools so all classrooms are in full use.

The resulting studies, which should be completed this winter, will give the state the first glimpse of how much it could potentially cost to do all the projects. The 161 districts have expressed interest in 422 school projects - which could run the gamut from replacing a heating system to building a new school - and many local school leaders are wondering whether there will be enough money to go around.

While the state has $2.5 billion to spend over the next five years, a new high school, which is the most expensive kind of school to build, can cost more than $100 million. The state has asked districts to choose which project is most needed, and the state will be working with architectural firms that don't normally bid on public school projects in Massachusetts to come up with the most cost-effective solutions.

The state may pursue projects on two separate paths simultaneously - fixing schools that need general repairs, while also taking on schools that will require extensive renovations or replacement.

And at this point, the state still has no idea how many projects it will be able to tackle in the first year.

"The ones we do this year will be the worst-condition schools," said Cahill. "Hopefully, we can get to most or all the schools over the next five years. . . . It really depends on how many high school projects there are."

The state could ultimately wade in and decide highly charged debates in some districts. In Norwood, for instance, school officials favor knocking down a historic high school building for a new school. But some residents object. The state will assess whether a new school is the best investment of state dollars, while also weighing the merits of historic preservation.

"We don't want to dictate what communities do," said Cahill, but later added, "We certainly will have a lot to say. We have to balance the needs of all school districts across the state."

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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