Massachusetts aid for large-scale school construction projects has benefited white students substantially more than students of color, who tend to be clustered in urban districts with deteriorating buildings, a Globe analysis has found.
Since 2007, when the newly created Massachusetts School Building Authority began accepting applications for new schools and major renovations, the agency has doled out $7.8 billion for major projects, money critical to renovating or replacing outdated or decrepit schools. But the program contributes to a significant racial divide in spending on school facilities. Districts with a majority white student population got about $10,000 per student for school projects, the Globe found, while districts made up mostly of students of color got about $6,400 per student.
The gap in spending is even more striking for districts with the highest percentages of white students, which tend to be small and rural. They received about $16,500 per student — almost 2½ times the amount spent on students in districts with the most Black students.
The divide has emerged even though students in urban districts, composed largely of low-income children of color, are more likely to attend classes in antiquated buildings, which tend to be poorly adapted to modern educational methods, and put students at greater risk of exposure to asbestos, lead, and other environmental contaminants.
Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, called the racial disparity in funding “really distressing.”
“We hear on a consistent basis all kinds of issues with school facilities from our client communities, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate heating and ventilation systems, leaky roofs, and all of those . . . significantly impact students’ learning,” said Sellstrom. “The fact that they’re particularly impacting communities of color should be alarming to everyone.”
A variety of factors creates the funding pattern. Not all communities are aggressive in seeking the state funds, even though their schools are badly in need of repair or replacement, according to the MSBA. And many urban leaders whose districts need new schools say their communities can’t afford their share of the construction costs, which for the poorest districts tends to be around 20 percent. (Reimbursement is based on per capita income, property wealth, and proportion of low-income students.) Coming up with the local contribution has been especially tough in recent years, as the state’s portion hasn’t kept pace with skyrocketing construction costs.
Increasingly, urban districts are making their frustration known. Earlier this month, more than one dozen mayors urged the Healey-Driscoll administration to intervene to close the funding gap, arguing that rising construction costs are preventing cities from replacing schools built more than a century ago.
“These buildings, in many ways, do not reflect a 21st-century learning environment and are at odds with the rigorous academic accountability standards required by the state,” they wrote in a letter requesting a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll.
State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who chairs the MSBA board, said the quasi-independent school construction authority “has always operated equitably.”
“I have been, and remain, committed to expanding our reach,” she said in a statement. “I am fully dedicated to making a difference for every community.”
The money urban districts received has barely made a dent in the large number of major school construction needs. Boston, where students of color make up 85 percent of total enrollment, got just four projects for new schools or major renovations approved by the state authority since 2007, out of more than three dozen requests for large-scale projects. Just two of the projects are complete. More than half of Boston’s 120 school buildings were built before World War II.
The average age of Worcester’s 46 school buildings is 75 years old. Ideally, district leaders say, they should be breaking ground on a new school every year. But the city got only three major school projects approved by the MSBA, out of more than 30 requests for major renovations or new buildings. (Each city’s totals included multiple requests for some projects.) Children of color account for 73 percent of Worcester’s student population.
And in New Bedford, where nearly one-third of the city’s more than two dozen schools are more than 100 years old, the MSBA funded one elementary school and has agreed to work with the city on another new elementary school project.
Overall, New Bedford got just $23 million from the MSBA for large-scale school construction projects so far, about the same as the Wachusett and Hudson school districts, both much smaller and better-off. Newton Public Schools, similar in size to New Bedford but with a greater proportion of white students and much wealthier, got slightly more. New Bedford, where students of color make up about 64 percent of total enrollment, submitted more than 30 requests for large-scale projects.
On a recent tour of the Congdon Elementary School, Andrew O’Leary, New Bedford’s assistant superintendent, said districts like his have been left behind by the MSBA.
The Congdon, built in 1907, is one of a half-dozen pre-World War I buildings in the district. The century-old schools are solid brick structures, but many lack HVAC systems, don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, lack gyms and cafeterias, and require constant maintenance.
“These buildings are wonderful, but they’re beyond their useful lives,” O’Leary said.
In the Congdon, Internet service is spotty because the building has an antiquated electrical system. Donna Spirlet, a first-grade teacher at the school, pointed to a water-damaged corner of her classroom.
“This corner of the wall is the worst,” she said. “I’ve put the TV there so that at least if plaster falls, it doesn’t fall on someone’s head.”
The Congdon is due to be replaced within the next few years with help from the MSBA, but that will barely dent New Bedford’s needs, O’Leary said. At current reimbursement rates, which cover 80 percent of eligible costs, the city cannot afford to replace more old buildings, even if the MSBA provided most of the funding for them.
The MSBA, located in Boston’s financial district, was created by the Legislature in 2004 to address the runaway spending of a previous school replacement program overseen by the state education department. The agency is governed by a seven-member board. It can spend about $850 million a year on school construction, funded by a penny on the state sales tax.
In deciding which school projects to fund, the MSBA doesn’t conduct an equity analysis to determine the distribution of dollars by race. Instead, funding decisions are made by a rank order of eight priorities under state law that mostly address the structural safety of a building targeted for replacement, crowded classroom conditions, and whether new facilities are needed for the district to maintain accreditation.
The only one of the MSBA’s eight priorities with a racial component involves helping districts build neighborhood schools in response to court-ordered racial integration plans. State lawmakers established the MSBA several years after a series of federal court rulings that largely prohibited using race in assigning students to schools.
In an interview, Jack McCarthy, executive director of the MSBA, said he was surprised by the racial disparity in the authority’s spending on school construction, emphasizing state law doesn’t call for an equity review in selecting projects.
“We feel our charge is to find the most urgent and needy buildings” among the dozens of applications filed each year, McCarthy said. “We’re going to pick the worst ones every time.”
Although he said his agency has helped many urban districts, some haven’t been aggressive in pursuing projects, and some state-approved projects were rejected by local voters. For instance, Holyoke voters in 2019 rejected two new middle school projects and voters in Lynn turned down two new middle schools in 2017. The MSBA had agreed to reimburse both districts for about 80 percent of eligible costs.
“It’s not like we weren’t there to do our part,” McCarthy said. “It’s that they couldn’t afford to do their part. That’s just an economic reality I can’t fix.”
Each year, the agency receives dozens of applications for major projects, but can only approve a fraction of them due to financial constraints. The MSBA is urging the Legislature this year to allow it to spend $1.1 billion, or about $250 million more than current levels. The Legislature last increased the annual amount in 2019.
Even that higher amount wouldn’t stretch too far in a state with 1,800 school buildings. If the MSBA were to ensure that every building could be replaced after 50 years of use — the targeted life span of a school — then the agency would need to approve about three dozen projects annually.
Instead, the MSBA’s board last year accepted only 10 major projects into the development process, the smallest number ever. That is largely a reflection of rising construction costs, but also because the total outlay is dominated by the massive renovation of Brockton High School, the state’s largest school, with 3,700 students. It’s Brockton’s first large-scale MSBA project. An estimated cost isn’t available yet.
In an effort to stretch its money further, the MSBA last year shut a repair program targeted at roofs, boilers, and windows — which was popular with urban districts — and redirected the money to new school construction and major renovations. And those large-scale projects are pricey: An average of $74 million for elementary schools and $206 million for high schools in recent years, a Globe analysis found.
Some leaders of urban districts say they feel the system has served their communities well. When a tornado in 2011 devastated two schools in Springfield, the MSBA quickly worked with the city to replace them, said School Superintendent Daniel Warwick. In all, Springfield, where the average facility is 55 years old, got four major projects done with the MSBA. Springfield covered its share largely through city bonds and hasn’t asked voters to increase property taxes.
“MSBA has been a great partner on every project,” Warwick said.
In Lynn, the woeful state of most of its 27 school facilities — almost half are more than 100 years old — and a growing student population are creating an educational crisis. The city, where 89 percent of students are children of color, built a new Marshall Middle School nearly a decade ago with the MSBA’s help. But Lynn voters later balked at the cost of replacing two other middle schools, forcing the city to start the MSBA application process over.
The MSBA now is working with Lynn on one new middle school, the Pickering. But with construction costs rising and state reimbursement rates failing to keep pace, Lynn will likely wind up paying for more than half of Pickering’s estimated $170 million cost, Mayor Jared Nicholson said. The city is trying to figure out how to build the school without asking voters to raise taxes.
“Things are tight,” Nicholson said. “To do a project at the Pickering with the current expected reimbursement would essentially mean that we wouldn’t do another project for decades.”
Boston has run into problems, too, even though it has money to spend. Officials have repeatedly stumbled in developing projects and in building community support for them. Its first project, a new Dearborn STEM Academy, got tied up at the Massachusetts Historical Commission, where neighborhood opponents unsuccessfully sought to block demolition of the original building. It finally opened in 2018.
Boston also struggled for years to find sites for the Boston Arts Academy and the Josiah Quincy Upper School, both of which ultimately received MSBA approval, and tends to quickly abandon proposals after an MSBA rejection rather than trying again. The MSBA is working with Boston to renovate the Carter School, which serves students with disabilities.
Mayor Michelle Wu is planning to accelerate the pace of school construction with a $2 billion effort she launched last year, using both MSBA and city funding.
Worcester has done relatively well compared to other districts, receiving about $11,600 per student for major school building projects under MSBA oversight, significantly more than the $6,500 average for the Gateway cities and Boston, yet it is far short of what the district actually needs. Worcester prioritized rebuilding two large high schools, as well as an elementary school. Superintendent Rachel Monárrez said almost every other school is sorely in need of repair.
Monárrez worries about the message the antiquated buildings, often devoid of natural sunlight in windowless areas like entryways and halls, send to students about the value the state and city put on their lives. The message, Monárrez said, is “I must be poor, and therefore only deserve so much in life.” Nearly three-quarters of Worcester’s students live in low-income households.
On Beacon Hill, several bills have been filed this year to examine MSBA funding, and ensure greater equity in how the money is distributed. One set of bills would funnel more money to districts with an outsize number of buildings requiring major renovations or replacement.
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who attended that city’s public schools as a child, said students shouldn’t be penalized for the economic and financial circumstances in their cities.
“We will be at a point in the next 10 or 20 years where some of these schools will no longer be safe,” said Crighton, who is sponsoring one of the bills. “And where are the students going to go at that point? To another crowded school down the street that’s 90 years old or 100 years old?”