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Boston City Council questions cost of school plan

Bill to relocate Fenway High, Mission Hill K-8 rises $5m

The Boston City Council is questioning the swelling costs of a School Department plan that calls for relocating or expanding several popular schools and opening two new ones, casting a cloud of uncertainty over some of the changes.

Scrutiny has been growing since last month after the City Council received a $20 million loan order to pay for the plan, an amount nearly twice as high as the School Department originally estimated in November.

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Of particular concern is the escalating cost of the plan’s big-ticket item, relocating Fenway High School to the site of Mission Hill K-8 School, which is being forced to move to a shuttered building in Jamaica Plain. Converting the Mission Hill building into Fenway High calls for the installation of an elevator with a chair lift, construction of a “cafetorium,’’ and a host of other renovations with a cost estimate that has jumped from more than $7 million to $12 million.

Some city councilors have asked the School Department to consider keeping Mission Hill K-8 at its current site, which many families there prefer, and instead move Fenway High to Jamaica Plain.

“We are not looking to obstruct anything, but we certainly don’t feel right in moving forward with such a huge loan order when there is not enough details,’’ said Mark Ciommo, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Ciommo’s committee has asked the School Department to provide a detailed accounting of how the money will be spent and an explanation for the increases. The School Department is expected to send answers to many of the questions to councilors as early as Monday, including a $1.3 million reduction in the cost.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said the School Department is sticking to its plan to move Fenway High School to Mission Hill because its students need to be within walking distance of Emmanuel College and Simmons College, where some students take classes.

“I think one of the core elements of success at Fenway has been its partnerships with higher education institutions, particularly Emmanuel,’’ Johnson said.

Johnson also said she needs Mission Hill K-8 to move to Jamaica Plain to accommodate rising demand for kindergarten in that part of the city. Johnson is planning to add an extra kindergarten classroom this fall, and may gradually add classrooms at other grades.

“All in all, I think families applying to these schools want greater access and we are trying to respond to that demand,’’ Johnson said.

The City Council’s questioning of the costs is the latest skirmish over Johnson’s proposal to add more than 700 seats to several schools that have long waiting lists for students.

The plan calls for the reactivation of the former Hyde Park High School and three other schools that closed last June as part of a budget cutting measure. As it turned out, the School Department closed some buildings prematurely, putting the city at risk of losing millions of dollars in state reimbursements for construction projects that occurred in those buildings over the last two decades.

Another aspect of the plan that is raising questions is the opening of the Margarita Muniz Academy in the former Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, which it would share with Mission Hill K-8. The Muniz may stay there for only two years because of Mission Hill’s expansion. Some city councilors are reluctant to renovate the building for temporary use by Muniz.

Councilor Michael Ross has been pushing the School Department to abandon its move of the Mission Hill K-8 School, an attraction for families in that neighborhood.

“It provides a constant flow of families to a neighborhood that needs it,’’ said Ross, who represents Mission Hill. “Why would you want to jeopardize the success of Mission Hill K-8?’’

He said Fenway students could easily take public buses from Jamaica Plain to the colleges in the Fenway.

But Dottie Engler, cochair of the board of trustees at Fenway High, said relying on public transit would be too problematic. As it is, she said, the Mission Hill site is farther away than they would prefer to be.

“In the best of worlds we would stay in the Fenway,’’ said Engler, emphasizing that the Mission Hill site requires a lot of work. “You can go into almost any public school that hasn’t been renovated in a while and it will cost $10 million to bring it up to code.’’

Bob Goodman, a Mission Hill K-8 parent, is hoping that his son’s school will ultimately stay put.

“The building is perfectly suited for Mission Hill,’’ Goodman said. “It is not suited for a modern high school.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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