It’s been seven months since Mayor Michelle Wu announced her Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools, pledging to spend more than $2 billion to overhaul Boston’s deteriorating school facilities. The ambitious effort is supposed to begin with the construction or major renovation of 14 or more schools.
But none of that is underway yet. So what’s been going on with this enormous project, and what should Bostonians expect in the months to come?
Remind me, how big a deal is this project?
The Green New Deal for BPS would 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.
The city intends to combine small schools, build new schools in every neighborhood, and switch to a consistent grade configuration across the district. The aim is to adapt to declining enrollment; to offer families better facilities; to make sure all schools are equipped with the space they need for libraries, inclusive special education, and other programs; and to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
What’s been done already?
A number of school construction projects were already in the planning stages when Wu took office, and a couple of those are under construction. Most of the new work done since May has been focused on planning: community engagement meetings at schools across the city, and work on three major planning documents, all due to be completed this year.
The first is a comprehensive look at the condition of all the district’s school buildings. The second study will outline what the district needs to switch to a pre-K-6 and 7-12 grade configuration.
”That’s going to really inform and shape our vision process to all of this,” said Superintendent Mary Skipper.
The third planning document will incorporate the first two and lay out a big plan to address all those needs, beyond the initial projects announced in May. The new 10-year facilities master plan will guide decisions about which projects to undertake, in what order, and how much it will cost.
A few projects are a bit farther along already: Community engagement and design work is underway on projects to expand Madison Park Technical Vocational High School; to rebuild the McKinley special-education schools; and to replace the Jackson-Mann/Horace Mann complex. The city has also asked for financial help from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to renovate or replace the Otis and Blackstone elementary schools.
What’s coming next?
This year, construction is slated to begin on two major building projects: the conversion of the former Irving Middle School in Roslindale as a pre-K-6 school to serve multiple existing elementary school communities, and the renovation of the Patrick J. Kennedy school in East Boston for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The district is also moving forward on plans for two elementary school mergers: the Taylor and the Shaw in Dorchester, and the Philbrick and the Sumner in Roslindale. The School Committee is expected to vote on those in the spring, although the timeline remains up in the air.
For the other major building projects envisioned in the plan’s first phase, groundbreaking is unlikely before 2024. Under an ambitious timeline, construction would take two years from that point.
How is it green?
Building standards, including energy efficiency and climate resilience, will be addressed in the second phase of the study on converting schools to a pre-K-6th grade or a 7th-to-12th-grade configuration, which is beginning with a look at academic standards.
New builds and major renovations are “where you’re going to see the real green impact,” Skipper said.
But officials noted that given the age of the current school facilities, any work will help make buildings greener.
“Every school construction project is an opportunity to accelerate climate action in Boston,” said Dion Irish, the city’s chief of operations, in a statement. “Green school buildings are healthier, more resilient, and more cost-effective to operate.”
How is it new?
Former mayor Martin J. Walsh also made school construction a cornerstone of his education agenda and committed $1 billion to his “BuildBPS” plan. But it moved slowly and was widely criticized for not developing concrete timelines to address problems, and for not prioritizing schools with the greatest needs.
“What I can say about this one is, there is the political will to move this forward,” said Rebecca Grainger, the mayor’s senior advisor for youth and schools.
City and district officials also said there are new levels of community engagement this time around, which they hope will help move it forward more quickly.
“An time we talk about a change of this magnitude, it has to start and be centered with the community,” Skipper said. “That dialogue and conversation, sharing information, sharing of data, that’s part of our commitment. . . . And that definitely feels different.”
Parents at the Sumner School, whose merger with the Philbrick was paused in October over concerns about inadequate engagement, were not so convinced.
“We still haven’t had regular meetings,” said Rachel Young, a parent at the school. “The operations team has not really changed their MO.”
Skipper acknowledged that not everyone is happy but said the district is making progress.
“We won’t be able to make every single person satisfied, but the goal will be to listen,” she said. “Now what we’re hearing is [requests] to adjust things, like the timeline, which we’ll continue to listen to and respond to.”
How is it a deal?
City and district leaders were quick to emphasize that the often-quoted $2 billion price tag is just the beginning; it covers the projects envisioned in the first phase of the project. But they say more will be announced in the master plan.
“This is really about a long investment in school facilities, and that means . . . additional funds as additional projects come onto the table,” Grainger said.
Skipper said the Green New Deal is a kind of a “handshake” between the government and the community, an agreement that Boston’s schools will become “hubs” offering not just academics, but also social and health services and community programming.
“There’s lots of opportunity in this city, with all of the resources that we have between our businesses, and our post-secondary, in our community organizations, and our nonprofits, for them to be part of this as part of the hub community of our schools,” she said.