Tucked into a $3.6 billion capital plan released by Mayor Michelle Wu this month is a proposal to get the ball rolling on a half-dozen school construction projects across the city, including new elementary schools in Dorchester and Roxbury.
Details are scant, but — if approved — the plan would launch studies on the six projects and could pave the way for a building boom for a school district that has seen few upgrades to its aging facilities in recent years.
The studies, which would cost about $150,000 to $175,000 each, would develop building plans and consider locations, mostly for elementary schools. Some line items include no information beyond the neighborhood and grade levels. More details on the school facilities plan will emerge in the course of the budget process, according to a city spokesperson.
“Every student in Boston deserves to learn in a space that is safe, healthy, energy-efficient, and inspiring,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail. “Mayor Wu has made it a top priority to invest in our school facilities, and we will have more details to share about the Mayor’s vision for district-wide facilities planning in the coming weeks.”
In total, the plan features $788 million in school spending, including funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. It would put the district on pace to hit the $1 billion over 10 years target envisioned in its BuildBPS planning process. It also represents a $47 million increase over district capital spending in the prior five-year plan.
The proposed studies represent yet another effort by BPS to bring its more than 100 schools into the 21st century, a daunting task after the district went decades without building more than a handful of new schools. The original BuildBPS report, released in 2017, found that the vast majority of the district’s schools were in poor or fair condition, keeping the city and district “in a constant cycle of upkeep to maintain these old buildings.” BPS completed its first new school in over a decade in 2018 and now has multiple under construction simultaneously.
The budget proposal touts the major projects already underway, including the $137 million Boston Arts Academy, which should be completed next budget year; the $193 million Josiah Quincy Upper School under construction; and the $92 million Carter School that will break ground this summer.
The city’s vision includes a $3 million investment in a citywide “Elementary School and Grades 7-12 Programming and Siting Study,” as well as initial investments in the six potentially major projects:
- West Roxbury Education Complex Study: “Study to rebuild the WR Education Complex as a comprehensive 7-12 school.”
- McKinley School Study: “Space programming study to determine requirements for all three McKinley School sites.”
- Allston Elementary School Study: “Develop a building program for the design and construction of a new K-6 school to be located on the site of the Jackson Mann School.”
- Horace Mann School Siting Study: “Study that will evaluate locations for the permanent siting of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.”
- Dorchester Elementary School Study: “Develop a building program for the design and construction of a new K-6 school.”
- Roxbury Elementary School Study: “Develop a building program for the design and construction of a new K-6 school.”
Most of the projects have been referenced in prior district planning, while the need for a new permanent Horace Mann site has been pressing since the Jackson Mann school building’s closure was announced last spring. The Horace Mann siting study comes alongside a $31 million project to move the school to Charlestown in the meantime.
All three elementary school studies are for K-6 schools, while the West Roxbury campus would be a 7-12 school — part of the district’s efforts to phase out middle schools entirely.
Otherwise, no information is available on why these particular projects are advancing — a notable question for the Allston elementary project, as the neighborhood has more elementary seats than students.
The studies are significant; at its current pace, the district is nowhere near spending the $3.2 billion it says it needs to devote to repair and renovations, as noted by the Boston Schools Fund, an organization that helps fund public, charter, and parochial schools.
“The $47 million increase is a solid start to addressing Boston’s school facilities needs,” said Kerry Donahue, the group’s chief strategy officer. “Longer term the city will need to ramp up its own capital investment, as well as partnering with the MSBA. The six new facilities studies are a start toward getting more projects shovel-ready, but until we have a master facilities plan, we won’t know the full cost of the investment needed to ensure every child has a high-quality school building.”
Adding these projects to the capital plan is only the first step in a long process. But the scale of the proposed projects — launching six studies at the same time, compared to the three schools currently under construction — hints at an acceleration of work across the city.
Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, said she was pleased to see two of the projects prioritizing marginalized students — the McKinley schools, which serve special needs students, and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. But she called on the district to improve its communication with families, to focus more on keeping school communities together through the building process, and to think about facilities in a bigger picture way.
“They keep saying this is coming, that people are working on it, but in reality we aren’t seeing decisions being made with a really birds-eye-view of the needs,” Reyes said. “You do a disservice when time and time again you just don’t communicate with school communities.”
The capital plan also features $3 million for upgrades at the soon-to-close Timilty School, to allow for grade reconfiguration, and $41 million in new infrastructure projects across the district, including a $16 million investment to replace boilers, install new fire sprinklers, as well as a new elevator at the Patrick J. Kennedy School to make it more accessible. Fourteen percent of the total — $109 million — would go to “citywide” projects, like accessibility improvements, routine maintenance, and new furniture.
“We don’t have any details on these projects yet, but are hopeful that by budgeting to update these aging buildings, the city and the district are demonstrating a renewed urgency for providing students and communities with the clean, green, safe, and welcoming schools buildings they deserve,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “We are currently fighting for such updates, as well as new buildings where necessary, in the next iteration of our contract. We look forward to working with the city and the school district on these urgent priorities.”
Moving forward with all the building projects in the budget will require serious funds. For example, the district has estimated that rebuilding the West Roxbury Education Complex will cost over $100 million through the state’s school building authority process. School building authority funding can help, but the authority’s grants cover only a portion of the costs for projects it supports, and getting a grant is not a guarantee: the district recently failed to secure one for a new Horace Mann site.