Communities that obtain funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority typically complete feasibility studies as part of the approval process, and the plans are developed before voters are asked to approve a tax increase to cover the local share. That’s how Lexington and Franklin did it last year.
“You don’t know what you’re doing until you get that done,” Lexington School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe said about the feasibility study. And even after the study, the cost to build Lexington’s elementary school still rose past the estimate.
In Franklin, the feasibility study helped officials determine that building a new high school would be more cost-effective than renovating the existing facility, which was the original plan, said Tom Mercer, chairman of the Franklin High School Building Committee.
The bids for the new school were close to the feasibility study’s estimates, Mercer said.
The state School Building Authority, which maintains oversight on projects that receive grants, has been working closely with Newton, said Matt Donovan, the agency’s spokesman. The authority wants school districts to communicate and collaborate, and Newton has done both, he said.
“Newton is doing what’s right for Newton,” Donovan said about the override. “We see a good partnership with Newton.”
Newton is seeking grants from the agency to help pay for the Angier and Cabot projects, and the city will only raise taxes as needed to pay for them, Lemieux said. If the buildings cost less than anticipated, the city won’t tax residents as much, she said.
If the two schools cost much more than expected, officials would have to come back to voters for additional money, she said.
“What we have put before the people of Newton is a five-year plan,” Lemieux said. “We do not plan on going back to them at least for another five years to ask them for more money.”
Newton officials will work within the projected budgets for these buildings, she said.
The city has more flexibility with the projects that are covered by the $8.4 million permanent override. If costs for one of the projects come in lower, the city can spend the additional tax revenue elsewhere.
City officials defended their approach to the overrides, and the decision to ask for a vote without having detailed designs and costs.
“You can wait to get an override after you’ve spent $1.5 million in design and find out that nobody is behind you,” said Bob Rooney, the city’s chief operating officer.
Hess-Mahan said that while he has reservations about the cost estimates, he still supports seeking the overrides.
“Given the choices, it’s the lesser of two evils,” Hess-Mahan said. “Not doing it would mean that we wait many more years to replace schools that are in terrible conditions. Doing it involves some risk.”