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Agency withholds payments for Hyde Park school

Waiting for input on plan

The Massachusetts School Building Authority quietly has been making good on its threat to stop reimbursing Boston annually for a $40 million renovation of Hyde Park High School, six months after the city closed the building in violation of state funding rules.

The decision was issued in a Dec. 19 letter to Superintendent Carol R. Johnson that was obtained by the Globe last week. In the letter, the authority said the remaining payments for the Hyde Park project, totaling $12.7 million, are currently on hold “pending additional information from the city.’’

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Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the school building authority, said in an interview that the payments remain on hold and that this year’s annual payment of $1.5 million would not be sent. He said the agency is still waiting for additional information about the School Department’s plan to reopen Hyde Park in September as the new home of two small high schools.

“Those dollars are on hold, but if they do come back with a sufficient plan [for Hyde Park] within two years they could recoup the money,’’ Donovan said.

The School Department, which has received public criticism for putting the funds in jeopardy by closing Hyde Park, never told the School Committee about the payments stopping, even though that board oversees all spending. The Rev. Gregory Groover, chairman of the School Committee, said he first learned of the development last week from a Globe reporter.

“Everyone knew that the state had questions and wanted them answered and that we could face the loss of payments, but I was not aware of the state halting the payments,’’ Groover said. “I’m at a loss.’’

Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman, characterized the school building authority’s action as expected.

“It was always our understanding the payments would be paused as we repurposed the building,’’ McGuire said.

The authority first told Johnson in a letter July 18 that it might halt payments on the Hyde Park project, completed about a decade ago, because the facility closed prematurely. The letter came after months of communication between the two entities.

Officials from the authority reiterated in public statements last summer and fall that they were exploring the possibility of stopping the funding, even as Johnson encountered problems in gaining public and School Committee support for a reuse plan for Hyde Park.

On July 19, Johnson presented a plan to the School Committee to relocate Boston Latin Academy there. But she abandoned the proposal in October after parents and teachers from Latin Academy presented documents suggesting their school was too large for Hyde Park.

In its place, Johnson proposed a plan to change the locations of several small popular schools. That plan, eventually approved by the School Committee last November, places Boston Community Leadership Academy and New Mission High School at the former Hyde Park High this September.

But in December the school building authority found the Hyde Park plan lacking in details, including what percentage of the Hyde Park facility could remain vacant after the two schools move in. It also had concerns about the future use of three elementary schools that had closed and were also still receiving state reimbursements for construction projects. The lack of clarity prompted the school building authority to halt funding on all those projects. Remaining payments on the three elementary schools was less than $400,000.

The School Department attempted to address the concerns in a letter on Jan. 30, saying it does not expect the Hyde Park building to have any vacant space after the two small schools move in and gradually expand to a combined enrollment of 950 students. Hyde Park is designed for 1,100 students.

But the school building authority was unsatisfied with the response. In a March 13 letter, it told the department the grant payments would remain on hold until Hyde Park reopens and “is being fully used as a public educational facility.’’ It also said it was withholding payments on the other school projects.

The School Department drafted a response to that letter last Thursday after the Globe made inquiries about the payments stopping. “Please let us know if you require further clarification,’’ Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar wrote. “We anticipate that with this response, there should be no loss of MSBA payments to the Boston Public Schools, and that all MSBA payments will resume by this fall, when students are in these schools and they are clearly in active use as public educational facilities.’’

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