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THE GREAT DIVIDE

School construction in Boston takes two steps forward, one step back

Big elementary school projects coming to East Boston and the South End; state funding rejected for another

Blackstone Elementary School in the South EndDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In an effort to modernize its decades-old buildings, Boston school officials are planning to renovate or replace a South End elementary school and are moving forward with a new elementary school in East Boston after years of delays.

The projects for the Otis Elementary School in East Boston and the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, where curtains and partitions separate classrooms, are in the early stages of development and could take years to complete, officials said.

Boston plans to seek lucrative reimbursements in the coming weeks from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to offset yet-to-be-determined construction costs.

“We anticipate these being very exciting projects and transformative projects for both school communities,” Nathan Kuder, the district’s chief financial officer, told the School Committee last week as he officially unveiled the plans.

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State funding, however, is far from certain and Kuder shared disappointing news on that front: The MSBA rejected a proposal this winter to construct a new building for the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, even though it’s vacating its Allston site in June due to deteriorating conditions. Kuder said Boston Public Schools remains committed to that project and will seek city funds instead.

The developments represent the latest efforts by BPS to bring its 121 schools into the 21st century, a daunting task for a district that has built fewer than a dozen new schools in the last 50 years as BPS has frequently struggled to get projects off the ground.

Stumbling blocks have ranged from difficulties securing land in a city with a red-hot real estate market to resistance from families who adore the historic charm of schools dating as far back as the 1800s.

Yet BPS might be on the verge of a building boom if it can sustain momentum as it changes superintendents and grapples with a dramatic decline in enrollment, which has caused the district to close and consolidate schools.

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Boston Arts Academy will be moving into a new building near Fenway Park this year, and BPS is working with the state on schematic designs for the Quincy Upper School in Chinatown and the Carter School in the South End, which serves students with significant disabilities.

Those projects follow new buildings that have come online in recent years for the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury and the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End.

Mayor Michelle Wu and the School Committee have emphasized that school construction will remain a top priority when a new superintendent starts and have made it part of the job description. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius attempted to reassure the public on that point last week.

“I see greater urgency around this topic now than when I first came here and our kids didn’t have clean water,” said Cassellius, who will be ending her three-year tenure in June.

The Otis, built in 1905 on Marion Street, exemplifies the sluggish pace that has afflicted school construction in Boston. BuildBPS, the city’s long-term facilities plan, called for a new school building in East Boston in 2018 and the city acquired a site on Paris Street for the Otis a year later. But planning efforts stalled amid the pandemic.

Kuder characterized the Otis, where nearly three-quarters of its 400 students are Latino, as crowded, lacking adequate spaces for academic interventions and basic services, such as a cafeteria.

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Similarly at the Blackstone, where 90 percent of its 450 students are Latino or Black, parents have pushed BPS for years to erect classroom walls and doors and convinced the School Committee in 2019 to devote $5 million to it. The school was built in the 1970s on Shawmut Avenue without walls separating classrooms to foster collaboration among teachers and encourage students to freely explore learning.

But BPS soon realized the task was much bigger than anticipated. Adding walls would require major upgrades to the HVAC and electrical systems, and wouldn’t address other problems. The school has a confusing maze-like design with split-level floors and is attached to a community center.

Families advocating for the repairs welcomed the news, even though their children likely won’t be there after it’s completed.

“I’m glad we are doing it for the future of the Blackstone,” said Suleika Soto, whose daughter is a fifth-grader, noting the building can be noisy. “My daughter says it’s very distracting. Sometimes she can’t hear the teacher.”

Several Horace Mann parents and staffers expressed frustration at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting about BPS’s failure to develop a concrete constructional proposal, even though officials had ample time. An engineering report three years ago found significant issues with several building operation systems, concluding the building “should be shutdown and rebuilt.”

The school will temporarily relocate to Charlestown this fall with no exit plan in sight.

“So, we have seen three mayors, three School Committee chairs, and pretty soon three superintendents,” said Charlie Kim, a parent. “A lot of things have changed, except for the fact that the Horace Mann does not have a plan for a new permanent home back in Allston. ... Where’s the transparency and trust we keep hearing?”

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Kuder said the MSBA turned down the proposal because a portion of its program serves adults.

“So that program doesn’t fit neatly within the MSBA’s project scope,” he said, noting they fund K-12 projects.

However, a copy of BPS’s funding application reveals BPS didn’t classify the project as urgent. Officials didn’t mark the highest-priority funding box: “Replacement or renovation of a building which is structurally unsound or otherwise in a condition seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of school children.”

Rather, BPS marked a lower priority box, replacing an obsolete building so a full range of programs can be offered. The MSBA encouraged Wu in a Feb. 3 letter to resubmit the proposal in the future.


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