Student bathrooms in the Boston Public Schools have long been plagued with malfunctioning toilets, broken paper towel dispensers, and even a lack of potable water.
In a small step toward addressing those problems, BPS agreed in June 2022 to renovate bathrooms at 15 schools within one year under a district improvement plan with the state. BPS officials were so confident they would get the job done they added a 16th school.
But since then, the renovations have been marred by delays and problems, including supply chain issues, a shortage of contractors, and unforeseen complications at some schools. The renovation process began only this spring, with many of the jobs going out to bid, making the original June 2023 deadline impossible to meet.
Consequently, BPS has finished the bathroom renovations at just six schools in recent weeks, while work at most of the other schools will be completed in various phases by the end of December. One school will take even longer.
The delays have become a flashpoint between the state and BPS in an ongoing conflict over the pace of district improvement efforts. Because of the delays, some students will have limited access to bathrooms at several schools this fall, and after-school programs could be disrupted by the sounds of drills, hammers, and other construction noise.
For many families and advocates, the poor bathroom conditions and the failure to quickly remedy them reflects BPS’s broader disinvestment in school buildings, despite promises by BPS leaders that they will do better. More than half of the district’s schools were built before 1950; few new ones have been built since the ‘80s.
BPS has deemed the bathrooms a high priority for repair or replacement at about 80 schools.
“These are delays on top of delays,” said Vernée Wilkinson of School Facts Boston, a parent advocacy organization. “It just underscores the lack of urgency, the lack of basic human rights, and the lack of support that students and families are receiving through the district.”
The district insists it’s committed to getting the $35.4 million job done and plans for additional bathroom renovations for the 2024-25 school year.
While BPS has repeatedly acknowledged initial delays in getting the renovations started in letters to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education over the past year, the district now insists the renovations are on track at most schools, even as leaders have repeatedly pushed back the completion dates.
“While the district endeavors to avoid delays in construction projects, it is not always possible to forecast what issues may arise,” Superintendent Mary Skipper wrote in an Aug. 31 memo to the state obtained by the Globe under a public records request.
To minimize disruptions this fall, construction will take place after school, she noted. But she warned there would be impacts on after-school programs and the availability of bathrooms during construction.
Many of the current projects are major gut renovations.
At the Ellis Elementary School, erected in Roxbury in 1932, contractors this summer ripped out the antiquated toilets and sinks from a bathroom and tore through the wall tiles and concrete cinder blocks, creating a massive pile of rubble that looked like an earthquake had struck.
In its place, the contractors assembled a modern bathroom reminiscent of those found inside a sleek office tower, with new gray and white tiling, electric hand dryers, and automated sinks.
The bathroom renovations at the Ellis are now complete, as well as those at Community Academy in Jamaica Plain, the Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury, and the Clap, the Everett, and the Holmes elementary schools in Dorchester, BPS said.
The sluggish pace of BPS’s bathroom renovations was thrust into the spotlight in June when state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley blasted BPS, Skipper, and Mayor Michelle Wu for what he viewed as their lack of urgency in executing the district improvement plan, which also includes overhauls in special education, transportation, and programs for multilingual learners.
He expressed frustration that shortly after the district-improvement plan was signed last June, BPS submitted a revised timeline for the bathroom renovations that called for extending the original June 2023 completion date for completing bathroom renovations at six schools until August 2023, and five schools by December 2023.
“One year ago today — literally today — the administration signed a document saying that they would hit their goals,” he said at the June state education board meeting. “At best we can say their grade is incomplete.”
The comments followed increasing concerns from Riley about the bathroom renovations, which the state has been pushing for more than three years. BPS claimed in spring 2022 that bathroom renovations had been completed at 29 schools, but Riley’s staff found bathrooms at two of those schools, the Clap and the Everett, hadn’t been renovated.
The Clap and Everett finally have newly renovated bathrooms this fall.
Riley declined to comment for this story.
Behind the scenes, however, tensions between the state and the district appear to have persisted this summer. Shortly after Riley blasted the district in June for moving slowly, BPS submitted another revised timeline for the bathroom renovations that indicated further delays, with most schools pushed to December. The district then submitted another timeline in July that was worse: None would be ready for September, one would be completed in October, and 14 schools would finish in December. Another school (the Chittick Elementary School in Hyde Park) had no completion date.
The state education department pushed back, and BPS subsequently revised its timeline in August so more schools would be completed by the end of October. But BPS ultimately beat that revised timeline at the six schools that are now done.
Bathroom renovations should wrap up by the end of October at the Guild elementary school in East Boston and by the end of December at the McKay K-8 in East Boston; the Curley and the Hennigan K-8s in Jamaica Plain; UP Academy Dorchester; Boston Latin Academy and the Greenwood K-8 in Dorchester; the Haley K-8 in Roslindale; and Young Achievers K-8 in Mattapan.
Renovations at the Chittick have become more complicated. The cost of the project is expected to exceed more than 30 percent of the value of the 1931 building, a threshold that triggers a mandate under state law to make old public buildings handicap accessible.
Skipper notified the state education department in a June memo about the issue and Max Baker, a BPS spokesman, said last week that BPS is working to secure a variance from the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. The variance would allow BPS to continue with the original scope of the project without making the additional modifications.
However, a spokesperson for the architectural access board said Wednesday BPS has yet to file a variance.
Other schools also had unforeseen problems. BPS had to redesign a portion of the McKay bathroom renovations because of a structural issue, and contractors at the Guild had to install a concrete slab unexpectedly during demolition, according to a July 31 memo Skipper sent the state.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the bathroom renovations are “long overdue.”
“Is it at times frustrating that the upgrades and changes are happening at a slower pace than I think the district would want even to? Yes,” Tang said. “But at the same time, we’ve seen more changes and improvements in our facilities in the last few years than we have in the decades preceding.”