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Mass. sees flurry of plans for pricey high schools

The preserved historic facades and the new construction planned for Somerville High School.
The preserved historic facades and the new construction planned for Somerville High School.(Symmes Maini & McKee Associates)

Eight years after a nearly $200 million high school in Newton shattered state spending records, several cities are pursuing school projects with even larger price tags — a reflection of how the state’s red-hot construction market is driving up costs.

At least two projects are on track to exceed Newton North High School’s high-water mark by tens of millions of dollars: Somerville voters this month approved a $257 million reconstruction of its high school, and Waltham officials are exploring site options for a new high school that could cost $283 million.

Meanwhile, Fall River and Lowell are in the early stages of developing plans to rebuild high schools with price tags expected to exceed $200 million.

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State and local officials stress that the high costs are not due to districts engaging in a game of one-upmanship to build Taj Mahal high schools. Most of the new projects do not include such pricey amenities as swimming pools, which prompted criticism in Newton.

Rather, officials say the price tags reflect two harsh realities: the unique challenges of rebuilding high schools on tight sites in densely populated cities, and the growing pressures all school systems face in competing with the private sector for construction contractors when there is a shortage of skilled labor.

“Any time costs go up, we have to be concerned,” said Jack McCarthy, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which oversees the state’s public school construction program. “And more and more of the costs will have to be borne by the districts.”

Matthew Malone, Fall River schools superintendent, said the investments are worthwhile.

“Building a new building will bring back new synergy and electricity to this community,” he said. “The key to economic improvement is through your public schools.”

The School Building Authority has spent the past several years trying to clamp down on school construction spending following public uproar over the high cost of Newton North, which included an unusual zigzag-shaped building with two theaters, a 25-yard-long pool, two gymnasiums, and pricey construction obstacles, such as granite ledges. The school was approved in 2000 initially as a modest $40 million renovation, but costs ballooned to $197 million, breaking the state record as it was being built in 2008. It opened in 2010.

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A hallmark of the state’s approach was the creation of a “model school program,” which enabled districts to borrow designs from other new schools to save on architectural and other fees. The School Building Authority also doesn’t reimburse for items such as swimming pools or field houses.

But the model school program works mainly for districts that have the luxury of building on undeveloped land, an increasingly rare commodity in Greater Boston.

For school systems that must redevelop sites, the challenges can be huge and expensive. With 3,000 students at Lowell High School, the city will probably end up with the biggest public high school project in the state in recent memory and also one of the biggest headaches: The campus straddles one of the city’s famous downtown canals, prompting officials to assess if they can build on another site.

Somerville will be rebuilding large portions of its high school on a 13-acre site along a steep hill that shares space with City Hall and the library. The project also involves building a 150-space parking garage into a hill.

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Fall River plans to rebuild much of Durfee High School, while preserving amenities, such as the swimming pool, to keep costs down.

Waltham, hoping to avoid rebuilding on the site of its high school, is looking for land.

So far, the kind of public controversy that surrounded the Newton North project has been absent from the debate over the school projects in the four cities. In Somerville, for instance, more than 70 percent of voters approved a temporary tax hike to pay for the project, and leading up to the election, there was no organized effort to defeat the measure.

The city is covering $136 million of the project costs. Annual property taxes on a single-family home would gradually increase by $294, according to the city’s website.

“I think we were very diligent and responsible in making sure that everything we asked for was absolutely necessary,” said Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper.

The expensive development market is in sharp contrast to when the state restarted its school construction program, seeking its first funding requests from districts in 2007. After the recession hit — halting much of the construction industry — school systems that proceeded with projects benefitted from discount prices. Most high schools developed during that time cost less than $100 million, according to state data.

“Contractors were almost doing projects at cost to keep their businesses open,” said McCarthy, of the School Building Authority. “Now, the construction industry is busier than ever.”

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And as more cranes went up around Boston, so did prices for school systems. That, in turn, prompted the School Building Authority to gradually raise its reimbursement rates from $275 per square foot in 2009 to $312 per square foot this year.

The authority covers between 40 percent to 80 percent of eligible project costs and has a limited amount available each year for projects based on sales tax revenue. This year that amount is $550 million.

Massachusetts schools are not alone. School construction costs have been rising from Florida to California.

But New England is the most expensive region in the nation to build schools, according to School Planning and Management, an industry publication based in California. The median per square foot cost for high schools is $388, although local construction experts say it is often higher in Massachusetts.

In some respects, erecting an office building with the same square footage of a high school can cost less. Those costs can range from an average of $180 to $450 a square foot, depending on the location and the type of building, according to the third-quarter report for 2016 by construction and property consulting firm Rider Levett Bucknall.

But Larry Spang of Arrowstreet, a Boston architecture firm that works on both school and office developments, warned against making comparisons.

“If you look at office buildings, they are pretty simple structures,” he said.

By contrast, high schools have dozens of classrooms and such expenses as auditoriums, soundproof music rooms, large cafeterias, science labs, and sometimes vocational shops. And schools, under state building standards, need to last 50 years.

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“Sometimes it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish if you put up dry wall in the hallways instead of cement blocks,” said Gary Frisch, assistant superintendent for finance in Lowell. “When you have 3,000 students go through a building on a day-to-day basis, that’s a lot of wear and tear.”


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