Students were first to cross the threshold this morning as the ribbon was cut to the new $197.5 million Newton North High School, the most expensive public school in Massachusetts history.
‘‘We will always keep in mind as the first graduating class that we are blazing the way for every Tiger to come,’’ senior class president Molly Doris-Pierce said at the official opening of the 1,850 student school. Classes begin next week.
Hundreds of people, many of them students, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. ceremony at the sunlit, zigzag-shaped building on Walnut Street. They applauded as the ribbon was cut by Doris-Pierce, Mayor Setti Warren, principal Jennifer Price, and school superintendent David Fleishman.
The building opens after a decade of controversy and soaring costs, as the project evolved from a $40 million renovation into an entirely new school featuring two theaters, two gymnasiums, vocational facilities, and a swimming pool. To critics, it became a symbol of spending excess and the need to overhaul the way public schools are built.
Former mayor David Cohen, who wagered his legacy on the controversial project, sat in the front row at today's ceremony and rose briefly to applause. He did not speak.
Price thanked architects, builders, town employees, and both mayors for making the new school a reality. ‘‘I hope you take great pride in this project,’’ Price told the crowd.
Referring to the criticism the project received, Warren said that ‘‘one choice was for us to quietly sulk into this building ... but instead we publicly celebrate the opening of this building.’’
‘‘We are fortunate in a time of national crisis to give our children a world class education,’’ he said. The new school ‘‘is a critical tool in that effort.’’ The duty of the community now, he said, is to ‘‘get the most out of this building.’’
Tours were held following the half-hour ceremony.
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.
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.
“The good news is that we have a new high school,’’ Cheryl Lappin, vice president of the city’s Board of Aldermen, said in an interview last week. “But it cost more than it should have, and we’ll pay for it for years to come.’’
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,’’ Cohen said in an interview last week. “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.’’
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.’’
Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.