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$197m later, Newton North opens

State’s costliest public school roiled the community

After a decade of battles and rising costs, Newton is ready to open its new high school. After a decade of battles and rising costs, Newton is ready to open its new high school. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / August 31, 2010

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NEWTON — It began as a simple renovation project. It ended up the most expensive public school ever built in Massachusetts.

After a decade of controversy and soaring costs, the city’s residents now will get to decide for themselves whether the new Newton North High School is worth its nearly $200 million price tag.

This morning the ribbon was cut to a sunlit, zigzag-shaped building that features two theaters, a 25-yard-long pool, a print shop, an auto body shop, two gymnasiums, and a student cafe.

“The good news is that we have a new high school,’’ said Cheryl Lappin, vice president of the city’s Board of Aldermen, previously. “But it cost more than it should have, and we’ll pay for it for years to come.’’

For better or worse the 413,000-square-foot showplace is a monument to former mayor David Cohen, and the bitter infighting that cost the three-term incumbent his popularity.

It also remains to many a symbol of spending excess, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a wealthy community that had traditionally and unapologetically made schools its top fiscal priority.

Yesterday, as teachers settled into their classrooms for the upcoming school year, a trio of seniors leaving preseason football practice gave the building a thumbs-up.

“I’m excited about a new start,’’ said Jose Morgan, 17. “I’m excited we’ll get to pick out the hangout spot.’’

Isaiah Penn, a three-season athlete, said he was thrilled to try out the new track, but would miss the student-painted murals and tiled walls that gave a homey feel to the old school.

But Tom Doherty said there is “more circulation’’ in the new building. His first impression: “It smells clean inside.’’

Just beyond the new school, with its pristine bike racks and freshly planted trees, the 38-year-old structure it replaces is fenced off and awaits demolition. The old Newton North was long derided for its lack of windows and 1970s decor. The new school is filled with sunlight and soaring ceilings.

But the central hallway winding through the zigzag structure attempts to replicate the old school’s fabled Main Street, which faculty and students said fostered a sense of community.

The reaction from faculty has been all positive, said assistant principal Deborah Holman. “It’s much lighter and airier and more conducive to learning and living.’’

That result did not come cheaply, however. The Newton North building project began as a relatively modest $40 million renovation, approved by voters in 2000, and evolved into a municipal saga lasting a decade.

It took several years of study and planning to determine that the existing building — plagued by leaks, heating and cooling problems, and asbestos issues — could not be safely renovated with students inside.

The city considered various options before deciding in 2005 that a completely new school, then estimated at $108 million, was the best solution. Cohen brought in renowned architect Graham Gund to design it, and by 2006 the estimated price tag was up to $141 million.

That plan passed muster with voters early in 2007, but by the end of the year the estimated price had ballooned to $170 million, due to construction costs and unforeseen changes and delays, according to officials.

By February 2008, the final price was $184 million, and some aldermen and critics called for a halt to the project. Then a few weeks later, an even higher price tag was revealed by Cohen to a furious city: $197.5 million.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill declared Newton North a “poster child’’ for the need to overhaul the way schools are built and initially balked at releasing $46.6 million in state funds for the project.

“Different and unique is good, unless it blows out the budget,’’ Cahill, who is running for governor, said in a recent interview. “There was so much different and unique here that it blew out the budget.’’

An analysis by the Globe in 2008 found that costs were driven up by several factors: buried demolition debris that made excavating the site difficult, design and management complications, hazardous materials, additional square footage for the cafeteria and kitchen, rising steel prices, and the cost of tearing down the old football stadium.

Lappin, an alderwoman since 2002, said it is a relief to see the school finally open after so much acrimony. “We can’t change things,’’ she said, “but we can learn from them.’’

The city has a slate of middle and elementary school rehabilitation and building projects on the agenda, and spending on those will be heavily scrutinized. “It’s been embarrassing to hear the school called the ‘Taj Mahal,’ ’’ Lappin said.

Nine months after leaving office, Cohen remains stalwartly behind the new high school, which he says will bolster property values and Newton’s reputation for academic excellence.

It has been frequently overlooked, Cohen said, that Newton North’s new indoor pool, vocational facilities, outdoor fields and running tracks, and kitchen facilities will be used by the entire city, not just a small group of students.

“I hope when people look back, they’ll think that the people of 2010 really cared about education,’’ said Cohen, who was not certain last week whether he would attend today’s ceremony. “I hope the kids learn from this that if something is important enough and you believe strongly in it, it is important to stick to it and get the job done.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Newton mayor’s office, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the size of the swimming pool. It is 25 yards long, according to the school’s athletic office.

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