Building schools could cut other projects, officials warn: ‘Something’s got to give’
The costs of school construction worry city officials enough that they’re slowing the pace – and yet still say there’s cause to worry about bumping up against Cambridge’s debt ceiling, preventing other major projects and even interfering with replacement of potholed streets and cracked sidewalks.
One council cost estimate sees work on four school renovation projects stretching out to fiscal year 2046 – a longer lifespan than discussed by the city manager – for a total $488 million, including $108 million in interest.
“I’m not against building the buildings, I just want to see how it all fits together in the long term,” councillor Leland Cheung asked Monday at a roundtable meeting of the City Council and School Committee. “If we’re bumping up against what we said are our debt limits, does that constrain us down the road?”
The answers came in various degrees of “yes” from City Manager Robert W. Healy and Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi – who takes over the top position July 1 when Healy retires – with Rossi among school and city officials stressing the urgent need for a more extensive conversation about overall construction needs in Cambridge before the city commits to an aggressive project schedule of anywhere up to $380 million spent over the next decades.
“It has not been my experience in city government that people would be thrilled with big tax increases, and the things that we’re talking about are huge, huge items. We need to look at what are school needs and what are city needs in terms of capital planning and needs and programs,” Rossi said. “As Bob Healy said, we’ve done a lot of big city buildings, but every year we have things like new roofs, new heating systems, windows, et cetera, et cetera, I could go on and on. [A conversation could decide] what’s the big picture moving forward so we get a really good look at the needs of the city.” He went on:
One of the things I worry about would be streets and sidewalks. Something’s got to give … The finance staff did a great job on this, but these are times we all have to have our eyes wide open. We need to know upfront what’s looming in the background and not make decisions just based on what seems to be good.
Five structures … or more
By approving the Innovation Agenda in March 2011 and implementing it this year, the School Committee added “upper schools” to the school district, taking sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders out of elementary schools for the first time. It created a need to change four school buildings into structures that could group K-5 students in one area and middle schoolers in another, although Healy reminded officials that “with or without the so-called Innovation Agenda, these facilities needed work.”
In addition, committee members and district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney described the public schools as packed with students and community functions, with even slight growth, solid retention of students and the addition of early education threatening to burst the seams. (In another part of the roundtable, officials strategized to win back students from out-of-district placements in parochial, private and especially charter schools, while councillor and state Rep. Marjorie Decker warned that there was an “absolutely huge movement” to lift the cap on how many students could leave for charter schools.)
“If the Innovation Agenda works – and our enrollment projections are a little low – we really are going to have a space crunch. We have a lot of students coming to our district, and if even a few more percent stay instead of leaking out, which they have done over the years, if we get up just to our pre-consolidation enrollment, that’s another 800 kids,” committee member Patty Nolan said, expressing excitement at the conversation but urging a more comprehensive one “because it’s coming up on us quickly.”
Shrinking enrollment more than a decade ago led to a consolidation that took the district to a dozen elementary schools from 15.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School at 100 Putnam Ave.; King Open at 850 Cambridge St.; and Tobin School at 197 Vassal Lane have long been targeted for reconstruction — the fourth upper-school building at 70 Rindge Ave. is not included in long-term renovation plans — that would result in years of student relocations, with the Longfellow school that closed in 2003 as “swing” space for whatever campus population is uprooted at the time.
But a School Committee facilities task force found in 2010 that there were five structures needing work, which put the Graham & Parks Alternative Public School at 44 Linnaean St. and the Kennedy-Longfellow School at 158 Spring St. in play, and Nolan reminded her colleagues on Monday that there was yet another need to be addressed: the rented central administration space at 159 Thorndike St.
“The superintendent and his cabinet are working in subpar space, and that needs to be part of the building plan. While we always put the kids first, the reality is that buildings matter and we need a long-term solution for our central administration,” Nolan said. “They have endured – and I think that’s the right word – conditions we would never in a million years let any one of our students be in for any length of time.”
Delay could mean state reimbursement
What looks like a seven-year, overlapping three-school building plan got complicated fast, with the $33 million estimated in 2011 as providing for design and construction at the MLK School, the first to be redone, leaping to $76 million, then to $84 million. Only that first school was intended to be built solely with city money. “I had made the statement initially that we would take the risk of school one without state reimbursement,” Healy said. “I’m not much more confident now there will be state reimbursement for the second school.”
Because of that, the city’s projection for school construction moves back the bonding for King Open, the next school getting improvements, so the council would have to vote to approve funds in spring of 2015, with the work beginning in fiscal year 2016 and the financial impact not being felt until fiscal year 2017. That seven-year plan with three overlapping cycles of design and construction became a nine-year plan in which the cycles didn’t overlap – an approach committee member Marc McGovern resisted Monday.
But the delay gives state revenue time to recover, which could make it more generous in reimbursement for construction. “Hopefully by fiscal year 2021, after the second school is finished, there will be a different availability of funds at the state level,” Healy said, giving his estimate that “even at conservatively optimistic or optimistically conservative interest percentages of 2.75 percent, the maximum principal interest on debt service in any year in this program comes in fiscal year 2024, when it’s $20 million … it builds up to that number and declines as debt service pays off by fiscal year 2035.” That’s 11 years earlier than a projection, which assumed no state reimbursement for the second school, floated by councillor Denise Simmons last month.
Down the road
Healy said he, Rossi and Assistant City Manager for Fiscal Affairs Louis Depasquale “have looked at the figures and believe it is something able to be handled within the city debt structure. It will not strain our debt. It will, and I have said this before, it will impact our capacity to do major projects on the city side that are not supported by user fees, be it sewer fund or water fund or traffic and parking fees. Tax-supported debt is for the most part dedicated over the next several year to school projects.”
But he reminded councillors that nothing happened without six of their nine voting for a construction loan order.
Cheung remained worried about the municipal interest rates cited by Healy, noting they’re at a 30-year low and likely to rise, even as space crunches and administrative needs loom as additional needs.
“Because of the aggressive schedule that we’re building these buildings, maybe there is no other option, and we have to just suck it up and we have to increase taxes to do it,” Cheung said. “But I want to make sure we understand it before we start to walk down this road.”