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Rejected once, schools regroup

Districts consider applying again for state building funds

Waltham High, cramped for lab space, plans to reapply for funds.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Waltham High, cramped for lab space, plans to reapply for funds.

As the deadline approaches to apply for state funding for school building projects this year, a number of area cities and towns whose projects were rejected last year are deciding whether and how to plead their case again.

“I think people here are optimistic, and I’m optimistic, that we can strengthen our case,” said Greg DeMeo, principal of Waltham High School. “I think we’re in better shape than we were last year, and I think we came pretty close’’ with that attempt.

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DeMeo said Waltham officials plan to submit a new statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority before the April 11 deadline. Waltham submitted a statement of interest last year for substantial renovations to its high school, but wasn’t invited by the state to continue in the eligibility process.

“Every year it’s a new cycle,” said Matt Donovan, chief operating officer of the state agency. “Every year we review everything that comes in.”

Although the grant program remains highly competitive, Donovan said, the number of proposals for projects seeking funding has decreased over the past few years. The state implemented a moratorium on funding for school building projects in 2004, and when the School Building Authority began taking statements of interest in 2007, the agency received 428 requests.

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“The first year, the floodgates opened, and everyone threw everything at us,” Donovan said.

The building authority then asked districts to prioritize their projects, and in 2012, it received just 280 funding requests, he said, and the total dropped to 201 last year.

‘I think people here are optimistic . . . that we can strengthen our case. I think we’re in better shape than we were last year.’

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Out of those 201 requests, the state considered 141 schools for “core” improvement projects, which involve more extensive repairs, renovations, and additions, or the construction of a new facility. Only 14 core projects were approved to take the next step in the funding process, with decisions on several projects still pending.

The state considered 19 projects in area communities for funding for core improvements. Of those, three schools — in Hopkinton, Needham, and Newton — have been invited to continue in the funding process, with the status of a fourth school in Shrewsbury still pending. Wellesley pulled one of its schools out of the running, and the rest of the projects from the area were rejected by the state.

Projects are eligible for reimbursement rates ranging from 31 to 80 percent, depending on factors such as the wealth of a community.

DeMeo said Waltham High has a number of needs. Its science labs are outdated, classrooms are too small to accommodate newer technology like interactive whiteboards, and basics like windows and the heating system need to be replaced, he said.

In this year’s application, DeMeo said, Waltham officials will more heavily emphasize how the building’s shortcomings affect students and their learning. “I’m working with all my program directors and asking them what we can’t do now that we’d like to be able to do in five or 10 years to help students be successful,” he said.

Matthew Torti, director of buildings and grounds for Framingham’s public schools, said his district also will make another attempt this year to get state funding for the Fuller Middle School, after being turned down last year.

Torti said Framingham officials hope to replace or renovate one school every several years, and Fuller Middle School has the most pressing problems. The building needs a new roof and has some structural problems, and does not meet current educational programming requirements, he said.

Torti said the state praised Framingham’s application last year, and encouraged school officials to reapply. In this year’s application, Torti said, officials will emphasize a potential K-8 solution that would also accommodate the district’s growing elementary school enrollment.

Even after a community gets invited into the eligibility process for project funding, it typically takes several years before a new school can be built.

Milford, for example, submitted a statement of interest for a new Woodland Elementary School in January 2011, according to Christine DePalma, the project manager for the district.

After Milford was invited to continue in the eligibility process, DePalma said, the district appointed a school building committee in May 2012, and was authorized by the School Building Authority to conduct a feasibility study that summer.

Just last month, Milford submitted schematic design drawings and an estimated project budget of $60.9 million to the state agency. If the authority approves the design and budget this spring, construction would likely start early next year, putting the new school on track to open in the fall of 2016, DePalma said.

“The School Building Authority, they really care about process,” DePalma said. “They have a responsibility to taxpayers. I think it’s a really good process.”

In Lincoln — a community that has gone back and forth with the state for several years about renovating its K-8 Lincoln School — officials will not ask the state for funding this year, but are still weighing what to do in the future.

“What’s important to us is that it’s not just a school decision, but it’s a town decision,” said Lincoln’s superintendent, Becky McFall.

McFall said the school has a “long list” of needs, including new roofs, boilers, and other systems.

The School Building Authority had approved designs and funding for a $49.9 million renovation of the Lincoln School in 2012, but local voters rejected the plan. Officials tried changing the proposal to address voters’ concerns, but the state said the town would have to start over with the approval process. Lincoln submitted a statement of interest last year, but was rejected.

Instead of putting in another request with the state this year, Lincoln school officials will ask Town Meeting to approve money to study fixes that could be funded entirely by the town.

“No matter what, we have to do work on the building,” McFall said. “It’s a question of how large that project is, and at what point we might go forward requesting state support.”

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said most communities do come back to the state a second time after their first funding requests are rejected, and many have success.

“Usually when they’re turned down, the reasons are provided to them,” Scott said. “Most of the time, when that adjustment’s been made, generally speaking, they’re able to get a project.”

Calvin Hennick can be reached at hennick.calvin@gmail.com.
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