by David Zipkin
Published in the Belmont Citizen-Herald.
It’s a fact – high schools are expensive. I’ve spent months diving into the numbers on the 7-12 school project. Let me share what I’ve learned.
$80,000,000 STATE GRANT
If Belmont votes YES to fund the 7-12 school, we will receive an $80 million state grant to help build it.
This is huge. It took 10 years of unsuccessful applications to be chosen for a grant by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), and they gave us 120 days for voters to approve the funding.
The clock is running out. If the vote fails, we must turn down the $80 million and it goes to another town.
Could we apply again? Theoretically, yes. But practically, no. The MSBA has more towns than they can fund. They choose communities that are serious about moving forward. If we reject this project, it will likely be a decade or more before they choose Belmont again.
LET’S UNPACK THE COSTS
Why are high schools so expensive?
- Boston’s construction market is hot, causing school project costs to grow 4% every year.
- High schools are more complex than office buildings, hotels, or even elementary schools.
- Our site is complicated, constrained by train tracks, Claypit Pond, the football field, and an underground dump.
- Finally, the school must remain operational during construction.
How do we know the money will be well spent?
The MSBA is a financial watchdog. They scrutinize every decision we make. They want their money well spent. No bells. No whistles. Just a basic, 21st century school.
After a lot of hard work, the Building Committee reduced the budget by $18 million to a cost of $295 million for 2,215 students.
Let’s benchmark our neighbors. Waltham’s new school will cost over $300 million for 1,830 students. Arlington’s estimate is $308 million for 1,755 students, or 32% more per student than Belmont.
Belmont will pay less for more students.
PLAN B IS MORE EXPENSIVE
On November 6, Belmont voters will decide whether to approve $213 million to build the 7-12 school (net of the $80 million state grant and $2 million already spent on design). For annual tax bills, that adds $181 per $100K of assessed home value.
But if the vote fails, what is Plan B?
According to Superintendent Phalen, we would need a total of 48 temporary, modular classrooms (mods) for 1,200 children, or nearly 1/4 of all 5,000 students; plus an addition to Chenery Middle School to expand the gym, cafeteria, and more; plus a renovation and addition for Belmont High School. These three projects represent more than a decade of town-wide disruption and a worse educational solution.
These three projects cost $247 million, or $34 million more than the 7-12 school.
Plan B costs more for a worse solution.
WE CAN’T “DO NOTHING”
What happens if we say “no” to the 7-12 school? And “no” to the mods, additions, and renovations?
“Do nothing” is a disaster for our community.
- Class sizes skyrocket from kindergarten on.
- BHS accreditation is at risk – we’ve been on warning since 2012.
- Some skills required by state standards are difficult or impossible to teach.
- Programs are cut because more space is required for core subjects.
- The exodus of exceptional teachers accelerates. (Some have already left because of overcrowding.)
- Property values are at risk, as the housing market dries up. (Buyers are already being warned about Belmont’s overcrowded schools.)
- Massive repair bills for the high school take funding that should be spent on police officers or roads or teachers.
The tidal wave of students is almost at the high school. Doing nothing isn’t an option.
THE FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE SOLUTION
The new Belmont 7-12 School is the most effective and least expensive solution to:
- Fix the space problem at all six Belmont schools for the least cost.
- Create a town asset that will serve 50+ years of Belmont children.
- Maintain the value of Belmont homes.
- Affirm Belmont as a town that values education.
The choice is clear. Vote Yes on Question #4 on November 6.