Wednesday, April 24, 2024

There were reassurances as well as causes for alarm in Monday discussions about renovating three of Cambridge’s schools. Members of the City Council and School Committee gathered for a report and question-and-answer period with the city manager and other officials, hearing, among other things:

  • What was hoped to be a seven-year schedule of rebuilding three schools, with overlapping cycles of one year of design and two of construction, will probably be nine years at worst — the same estimates by campus, but without the overlapping schedules.
  • The cost of rebuilding just the first school could take another leap upward to $84 million from $76 million if the council chooses to do it in the most environmentally conscious way, called “Zero Net Energy,” providing a rough guideline to costs for the remaining two schools for a potential $240 million without debt service. In borrowing money for a project and paying back the loan over 20 to 25 years, the cost of one school could rise to an estimated $103 million.

What’s missing from these figures, said City Manager Robert W. Healy, is a sense of how much the state and its School Building Authority will be contributing to Cambridge’s projects. A request to the authority was made in January for help with the second school the city expects to rebuild, he said, but an answer isn’t expected until the fall.

“They like to be cooperative with us. They know we know what we’re doing and that when we do a project we do it right. The question is, do they have enough money?” Healy said, noting that the authority has a new leader in Jack McCarthy, and he and state Treasurer Steve Grossman haven’t worked with Cambridge before. “The actual sequencing of financing and debt will be dependent on what we hear from the state.”

While fellow School Committee member Patty Nolan wondered at the expense of Cambridge school renovations at a two-hour meeting Monday with the City Council, Mervan Osborne wondered why no one seemed excited at the reshaping of the district. The two are seen in a photo from an earlier meeting. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

If Grossman and McCarthy seem hesitant, Healy agreed with committee vice chairman Fred Fantini that the city’s state senators and representatives could be asked to step in and plead the city’s case for funding for work on a second and third school.

“It’s a little uncertain how,” Healy said of scheduling for the second school to be rebuilt, “but we’re going forward. This is not a stopping of the building plan, but it might slow it down … the worst case is that design of the second school doesn’t take place until the first school is done, so we slide a year. Three three-year projects is a realistic plan. If miracles happen and words comes back and it’s very positive, we can try to go back to the original [seven-year] model.”

Matt Donovan, director of communication and government relations for the authority, said the program has changed since Cambridge last used applied in 2004. Now, Donovan said, “ a city or town comes to us with a problem and we work with them on a solution. They don’t necessarily come up with a solution on their own.” He said the agency staff would be “more than happy” to sit down with Healy or other officials to talk about needs for the King Open School or, later, the Tobin School.

Three schools — actually, six

The council is responsible for approving the loans that would make construction possible, and Healy said he would submit a loan authorization to the council at its lone summer meeting, to be held July 30, so it could go to a second reading and be ready for a vote in September. That would signal an immediate commitment for The King School at 100 Putnam Ave., which will open Sept. 4 as the Putnam Avenue Upper School for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in addition to continuing as a K-5 elementary school.

Councillor Craig Kelley wondered why this school wasn’t also submitted to the state for funds, and Healy noted the delay in construction that process would have brought, considering “we thought we could handle the first school” financially.

The second school to be rebuilt would be the King Open School at 850 Cambridge St., also to be known as the Cambridge Street Upper School; and the final school — for now — is the Tobin School at 197 Vassal Lane, also to include the Vassal Lane Upper School. (The fourth upper school location at 70 Rindge Ave. is not included in long-term renovation plans.)

“We’re still committed to moving forward with the building plan as envisioned, but we need some financial help. I think it was clear from the beginning we would do the first school on our own and hope for reimbursement,” Healy said.

In price estimates, “things do change”

The city intended to put $33 million for design and construction into the Putnam Avenue school, but the figures rose dramatically once the $3 million study got under way. While acknowledging it was impossible to get an apples-to-apples comparison, School Committee member Patty Nolan wondered at the soaring projected cost of a school in Cambridge when Arlington is building one for $20 million for a student population of 380 — far less than half the cost for about half the number of students.

“It clearly is a number greater than we’d hoped for,” Healy said of Putnam Avenue hitting a possible $76 million to $84 million.

The first estimate was a “Bob Healy back-of-the-envelope” guess, he said, and when a serious cost analysis was finally done, various costs had soared. The price of steel and gas has even come down since, but when the estimate was done three months ago, “The climate changed significantly … gas was up the walls. Things do change.”

Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi reminded Nolan and others of a whole different set of factors adding to construction costs: Doing the schools right in such things as utilities, parking lots and bus drop-off not just for the students but to answer the complaints of neighbors made each school more like “a giant public works project” than a simple rebuild. And each school was two campuses in one, meaning, for instance, two gyms — an expense the Arlington School doesn’t face.

Good credit, but a lack of excitement

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom wondered whether the city’s free cash of some $100 million was an option for self-funding the school reconstructions, but Healy called that “bad municipal finance given the price at which we borrow money.”

It was a reminder that lenders are eager to buy Cambridge bonds and provide money for its projects, since they know they’ll be paid back reliably — albeit at the low interest rates warranted by the city’s universally top-notch credit ratings. “We’re well within” our financial capabilities on the school projects, Healy said. “We can afford to borrow and pay it back without a dramatic impact on the taxpayer.”

Getting state money was desirable, though, because “three schools over 29 years might be a bit of a stretch.” While it wouldn’t strain the city, “it will certainly take a good chunk of available commitment and restrict other capital projects,” he said. And it’s a commitment that will continue to be faced two council terms from now, long after Healy’s retirement next year.

Still, tackling the city’s aging (and in some cases outright ugly) elementary schools has long been planned for after the $26 million renovation of the War Memorial Recreation Center and $112 million high school — a much-admired project that Healy reminded those gathered began with a $29 million estimate.

After a meeting’s worth of million-dollar figures had been thrown around, committee member Mervan Osborne led off his questions with a statement, and one that seemed to cause a mild shock of recognition throughout the room.

“I must have missed the part where there was any excitement about this. Considering the passion we’ve seen over the academic piece [of the Innovation Agenda], it feels as if we’re slogging forward,” Osborne said. “It doesn’t feel like anybody wants this. I know we do.”

Councillor David Maher, who was mayor last term when the renovation process got started, did share the excitement.

“We’ve come a long way in the past year and a half,” Maher said. “We’re reshaping our school district.”

This post was updated June 26, 2012, at Robert W. Healy’s suggestion to reflect a price range from $76 million to $84 with Zero Net Energy; it had previously said $73 million to $80 million based on mentions during the Monday meeting. It was updated June 28, 2012, with information from Matt Donovan on the King Open School funding request with the state.