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High hopes (and price tags) for new schools

Stoughton Superintendent of Schools John Marcus walks down the U-shaped staircase to the first floor at the new $121 million high school, which opens this fall.Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

When students head back to school this fall, many will enter sparkling new facilities or walk past busy construction sites as the recent wave of large-scale projects kicks into high gear.

At least 11 middle and high school projects are in full swing or nearing completion in the region, replacing, upgrading, or expanding aging buildings. Another eight or more are in the full or schematic design phase.

Nearly a dozen years after the $197.5 million Newton North High School broke the state record for most expensive school, some of the latest projects make that figure pale in comparison. Those include Somerville High ($256 million); Lowell High School ($343 million); a combined Belmont High School and Middle School ($295 million); and Arlington High School ($291 million).


Meanwhile, at an estimated $375 million, the proposed new Waltham High School — which is still in the schematic design phase — is poised to become the most expensive school ever built in the state.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is providing funding for most of the projects. In nearly all the cities and towns involved, voters also approved debt exclusions — typically 20- to 30-year property tax increases — to pay for the rest. Somerville High School and the first phase of the Belmont project are under construction. The projects in Arlington and Lowell are in the final design phase.

“Nobody will mistake any of these school buildings for the Taj Mahal. These projects are falling victim to the economy we find ourselves in,” said Jack McCarthy, executive director of the School Building Authority. With the amount of building now occurring in the state, “construction costs are a lot higher than during the recent recession.”

McCarthy also said complex site issues are also a contributing factor to the high costs of some projects, noting for example that because Somerville lacked a viable site to erect a new school, it had no choice but to renovate and expand on its existing site, which added years — and resulting costs — to its high school project.


The exterior of the new media center at Minuteman High School in Lexington. The new school, which cost $145 million, opens this fall. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Other projects include Stoughton High School ($121 million); the regional Minuteman High School in Lexington ($145 million); and Billerica Memorial High School ($176 million), which also will house the town’s preschool program. All three are new construction and open this fall.

Billerica’s project is linked to a districtwide grade realignment that includes adding the eighth grade to the high school. The state School Building Authority provided a $71 million grant.

The 325,191-square-foot building includes a 700-seat auditorium, a gymnasium with an elevated track, space for cross-disciplinary programs, a black box theater, and a local history room.

School Superintendent Tim Piwowar said the project, the largest Billerica ever has undertaken, provides the community with “an incredible modern facility that will allow us to deliver the kind of education our students need in 2019 and beyond.”

Minuteman Superintendent Edward Bouquillon said the new 257,000-square-foot high school, funded with the help of $45 million from the state, provides the district the facilities needed for all its varied vocational programs, many of which were added since the existing building opened in 1974.

“The district and the area’s industries and businesses will benefit from this new school,” he said. “We are going to be providing well-trained students, as well as access to our training facilities to companies that want to enhance the skills of their existing workers.”


Arlington’s project will provide the town with a new 409,000-square-foot school to replace the existing building, which was constructed in 1914 and expanded and updated since. The state School Building Authority is contributing up to $86 million to the project, which is being done in phases and set to be completed by the start of the 2024-’25 school year.

“A new high school is sorely needed to accommodate Arlington’s increasing enrollment and address a deteriorating and outdated facility that no longer meets today’s educational needs,” Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said via e-mail.

The $256 million Somerville High School project is expected to be completed in time for the 2020-2021 school year. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The overhaul of Somerville’s High School — portions of which date back to 1895 — will result in a mostly new 377,406-square-foot facility designed with features to accommodate a wider range of teaching approaches. The project — funded with the help of a $120 million state grant — also will provide a new auditorium, new field house, and a new turf field.

“This project is an investment in the future of our youth and of our city,” Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Superintendent Mary Skipper said in a statement. The new school is on target to be ready for the 2020-2021 school year.

Lowell’s project, supported with $210 million in state School Building Authority funds, involves renovations to existing high school facilities and construction of a new field house and a new five-story academy for freshmen. The 620,000-square-foot school also will feature 28 science labs, a clean energy lab, and a rooftop garden.


“This is a transformative project for the city of Lowell that, once complete, will offer Lowell High School students a first-class education in a state-of the-art facility for generations to come,” City Manager Eileen Donoghue said in an e-mail. “We also envision this campus as being a community gathering space that will be an additional amenity to our already vibrant downtown landscape.”

According to the School Building Committee timeline, phase one of the Lowell project is expected to begin construction in 2021, and the building will be completed in time for the 2026-2027 school year.

The Belmont project, a renovation and expansion expected to be completed in 2023, will result in a 445,000-square-foot facility serving grades 7 through 12. Moving the upper middle grades to the building is part of a districtwide realignment aimed at easing overcrowding in all the schools, according to Bill Lovallo, chair of the school building committee. The state is covering $78 million of the costs.

The new school will include such features as flexible classroom spaces for interdisciplinary learning; a new auditorium; a renovated field house; and a multiuse cafeteria area that includes space for people to gather before and after theatrical and athletic events.

Lovallo said in approving the project last year, voters recognized that “with a growing student population there needs to be a district-wide solution.”

Waltham’s proposed new 414,000-square-foot high school would be built on land the city took from the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers by eminent domain last year. The city anticipates an Aug. 28 vote by the state School Building Authority on whether to help fund the project with an estimated $110 million.


Stoughton’s new 214,600-square-foot high school, which is being built with the help of a $50 million School Building Authority grant, includes a fully equipped auditorium; a black box theater; modern science labs; and larger classrooms.

School Superintendent John Marcus said the project makes this “an opportunity for new beginnings” for the district. “We are excited to have not only our students and staff but the whole community able to take advantage of this amazing new facility.”

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Brookline is getting a $206 million renovation and expansion of its high school, but there will be no funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for the project.

Brookline’s 2015 bid for a grant was denied because the state authority already was funding another “priority” building project in town that year: $27 million to renovate and expand the prekindergarten through Grade 8 Coolidge Corner School (formerly the Devotion Elementary School). That project was completed in 2018 at a total cost of $120 million.

Meanwhile, residents in May 2018 passed a debt exclusion that will raise property taxes for 25 years for the high school project. The plan calls for adding a new academic building and one focued on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at the high school’s Greenough Street campus, said Nancy Heller, a Select Board member and co-chair of the High School Building Committee. It will also update parts of the athletic building and the town’s public swimming pool, and improve Cypress Field.

The project “greatly improves the facility for all segments of our community: relieves overcrowding for high school students, provides state-of-the art science facilities, provides improvements/renovations to our gym building . . . and provides a much-needed renovation of Cypress Field,” Heller said via e-mail.

Other school projects in the works include:

Projects in construction

■  $82.6 million renovation and expansion of Braintree East Middle School ($40.3 million from the state authority)

■  $85 million renovation and expansion of Blue Hills Regional Technical High School in Canton ($43.1 million from the state)

■  $103 million renovation and expansion of Middleborough High School ($42.5 million from the state)

■  $110 million new Natick Kennedy Middle School ($36.6 million from the state)

■  $161 million new Saugus Middle and High School ($63.8 million from the state)

Projects in final design phase

■  $98 million new Framingham Fuller Middle School ($38 million from the state)

■  $164 million addition and renovation of the Weymouth Chapman Middle School ($57 million from the state)

■  $146 million Pentucket Regional School District new middle and high school in West Newbury ($52.7 million from the state)

Projects in schematic design phase

■  $87 million new Braintree South Middle School

■  $122 million new Sharon High School

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.