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Will Somerville voters OK the state’s priciest school ever?

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

Somerville voters will decide whether to fund the highest-priced school building project in state history when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 8 election.

As planned, the new Somerville High School will cost an estimated $257 million, with the city picking up $137 million of the cost, $130.3 million of it absorbed by taxpayers through the debt exclusion proposed on the ballot. The tax increase would last for the length of time it takes to pay off the debt. The city has projected the tax increase will be in effect from 2018 to 2054.

The added taxes for an average single-family home would rise gradually to a maximum of $294 annually in fiscal 2027. Starting around 2047, the amount would gradually fall to zero in fiscal 2054.


The Massachusetts School Building Authority board is scheduled to vote in February on approving the agency's estimated $120 million share of the project.

The project's estimated price tag would top the $198.5 million spent to build the Newton North High School, completed in 2010 and currently the state's most expensive school building project.

"The Somerville education system has been booming," said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, a strong supporter of the project, citing steady progress in the district's test scores. But he said the high school building's many deficiencies "are an impediment to our future ability to innovate in our educational system and to enable the collaborative creativity of all our future students."

Brian McCarthy, chairman of the Somerville Republican City Committee, said he opposed the project as a "waste of taxpayer funds. It's going to increase the taxes on the elderly — they will no longer be able to live in Somerville."

Officials said the existing Highland Avenue school — which has original section dating to 1895 — suffers from inefficient heating and cooling systems; an exterior in need of structural repairs; inadequate access; and other needs to bring it to code. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has warned the school's accreditation could be in jeopardy if the issues are not addressed.


Constructing a new high school would not only preserve the accreditation but "unlock the 21st-century education plan we've envisioned as a community," Curtatone said.

The proposed plan, selected by the Somerville High School Building Committee from among several options, calls for locating the new 404,110 square foot school on the current site. About 82,700 square feet of the existing facility would be retained and renovated, with the remainder demolished. New construction would total 321,410 square feet.

There are currently 1,237 students enrolled in grades 9-12 at the high school, but that number is expected to increase. The new school could accommodate up to 1,590 students, according to the building committee.

Proponents point to significant challenges that are impacting the cost of the project. The site is in an urban core and on a steep slope. The building committee also decided to include the first outdoor field space in the school's history, to be constructed atop a parking garage.

The view of the new athletic field proposed at Somerville High School.Symmes Maini & McKee Associates

Curtatone said simply renovating the building to meet code would roughly equal the city's share of the proposed project, but with none of the benefits of the new construction. The MSBA would not have offered any funding for a simple renovation project, he said.


"The project makes eminent economic sense," said Howard E. Horton, chair of a ballot committee that is urging a "Yes" vote on the debt exclusion. "Why over the next decade should the city spend about $130 million to renovate a building in a constant state of disrepair when for the same investment we can leverage an equal match from the state and get a brand new building that would be viable for decades to come?"

If the ballot question passes, construction is projected to begin in April 2018 and continue until July 2021. Students will continue to attend the high school during construction.

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