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Wu to launch a new era of school construction, pledging $2 billion to revamp city’s school facilities

Mayor Michelle Wu pledged to spend $2 billion to overhaul the city’s deteriorating school facilities, as she spoke Thursday at the McKinley Elementary School.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu pledged Thursday to spend $2 billion to overhaul Boston’s deteriorating school facilities, under an ambitious effort that would begin with 14 new school buildings or major renovations.

Wu billed the proposal as a “Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools” and promised to greatly accelerate the pace of construction in a school system that has built fewer than a dozen new schools over the last 40 years, and where some buildings date to the 1800s. In many schools, the clanking of steam radiators distracts students, learning spaces are devoid of sunlight and fresh air, and water fountains lack drinkable water.

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“These improvements are long overdue, decades overdue in many cases, and we’re often seeing the consequences of deferred maintenance,” Wu said outside the McKinley Elementary School in the South End.

“Our young people see that every day in the feelings they have when they enter buildings where you can see water stains on the ceiling tiles, or shades that don’t properly work, or windows that are sticky to open,” Wu said. “And we’re seeing that has built and reinforces mistrust between the city and the community we are here to serve.”

The ultimate goal is to ensure that every school community will be in an upgraded building. But that could involve some difficult decisions about combining schools in a district where many families like the intimacy of small schools, even if it comes at the expense of art, music, or gym. That dynamic has sometimes made it difficult for administrators to win support for large-scale projects.

The new building plan comes as BPS is grappling with a decline in enrollment and is under pressure from some elected officials and fiscal watchdogs to close buildings. Current enrollment is about 49,000, down about 8,000 students over the past decade.

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When it comes to school construction, Boston has long languished behind many large urban school systems nationwide that have launched or completed large-scale plans to build schools or extensively renovate others, a list that includes New Haven, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and San Diego.

Many parents, teachers, and students have long been frustrated over the woeful state of school buildings and the inability of a long list of mayors, superintendents, and School Committee members to live up to their promises to fix them.

Former mayor Martin J. Walsh had made school construction a cornerstone of his education agenda and committed $1 billion to it. But the effort, known as BuildBPS, moved slowly and was widely criticized for not developing concrete timelines to address problems and for not prioritizing schools in the greatest need.

There were a few notable milestones during Walsh’s tenure: the Dearborn STEM Academy moved into the district’s first new school building in 15 years in 2018, while the Eliot K-8 in the North End was extensively renovated. And Boston Arts Academy’s new building in the Fenway is expected to open this fall.

Yet the initial planning for those big projects actually began before Walsh’s tenure, highlighting just how long it takes Boston, even with its immense resources, to get school construction off the ground.

“It is long past time that our city have a plan to tackle the very shameful state of our school buildings,” said Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer for the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit working with city schools on expanding grade levels.

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Wu said she wants school construction to move more quickly.

The mayor pledged greater collaboration between the facility departments at City Hall and BPS, and the creation of several new positions, such as project managers. Those agencies will work closely with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which offers funding for a portion of construction costs.

But most of the projects in her proposal lack clear timelines for construction or renovations, while a number of them will require feasibility studies as a first step.

It will be a heavy lift to meet the goal, according to a Globe review of facilities data released by the city Thursday that highlight some major infrastructure issues. More than 100 of the district’s 121 schools need to extensively repair or replace heating and cooling systems, 73 have major plumbing problems, and 72 have roofs that need either extensive repairs or outright replacement.

Wu said the city will likely need additional resources and outside partnerships to aid the effort. The $2 billion she’s pledging includes $650 million already outlined in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan that was released in April.

A number of the 14 school projects are already in planning or have been widely discussed, while others are new.

The projects include renovating the McKinley and Blackstone elementary schools in the South End, King K-8 in Roxbury, PJ Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, and Community Academy of Science and Health in Dorchester; constructing a new building for the Otis Elementary School on Paris Street; expanding Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury; and replacing the shuttered West Roxbury high school campus and the soon-to-be-closing Jackson Mann school complex in Allston, considered to be in the worst condition among all BPS buildings.

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That new Allston school could result in existing schools merging and moving into that space. The proposal says Boston will work with the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing about the feasibility of locating there permanently. The Horace Mann currently uses a portion of the building. Earlier this year, the state building authority rejected a BPS request to build the Horace Mann school a new building elsewhere.

The plan also encompasses new elementary school buildings in Roxbury and Dorchester/Mattapan, converting the soon-to-be shut Irving Middle School into an elementary school, and renovating the Timilty Middle School for swing space. BPS will work with individual schools to see which might be willing to merge and move into the new spaces.

Athletic fields at White Stadium also will be upgraded.

Bobby Jenkins, president of the Madison Park Alumni Association, said he was pleased to finally see an investment for Madison Park’s facility, which dates to the 1970s. He emphasized city and school officials need to develop the proposals in partnership with teachers, students, parents, alumni, and community organizations.

“We definitely need to have a say,” he said.

Marcella Elliott-Thompson, a teacher at the Winship Elementary School in Brighton, whose daughter goes to Madison Park, said every student in Boston deserves learning spaces that are safe, nurturing, and equipped with the tools to prepare them for college and beyond.

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“I’ve seen firsthand the differences in school facilities across the district, the difference in how it feels to walk into a beautiful gleaming school with state-of-the-art science labs and fully stocked libraries compared to schools with the paint peeling, windows that are cracked to get some air circulation, and educators are squeezed into every inch of space,” she said.

The city also is launching a facilities dashboard where parents can look up information on school building conditions, which will be updated as repairs are made or if facilities worsen, and will rate various aspects of each building’s infrastructure.

The dashboard will give each school facility an overall rating so parents know how their children’s school compares with others, and why some school projects are being prioritized over others.

Christopher Huffaker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


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