The prosperous city of Newton holds the current record for the state’s costliest school, at about $200 million for the new Newton North High School. Bostonians should strive to keep up with Newton academically. But Boston shouldn’t go on a similar spending spree lightly, and residents should cast a critical eye on the school department’s breathtaking $261 million estimate for building a shared facility for two downtown high schools.
The proposal would accommodate a total of 1,360 students from the Boston Arts Academy and the Quincy Upper School in a new building on a state-owned parcel at the edge of Chinatown. (Newton North serves about 1,800 students.) Currently, the two Boston high schools are housed in aging, inadequate facilities. It’s not clear how much of the cost of the new schools might be offset by selling or renting out the arts high school building in the Fenway or the Quincy Upper for students in grades 6 to 12 on Arlington Street.
Long-range facility planning wasn’t a strong suit for former superintendent Carol Johnson, who retired over the summer. But shortly before she left, she informed the School Committee that the system had a glut of about 3,000 seats at the high school level. That raises the possibility, at least, that existing buildings could be configured to accommodate the high schools at a lower cost.
The McKinley South End Academy on Warren Avenue, for example, is situated near leading theater, dance, and music venues, which would make it a good location for an arts high school. Currently, the McKinley serves students with a variety of behavioral and emotional problems who receive no intrinsic advantage from a downtown location.
Boston students deserve to attend classes in the best possible facilities, and developing a nationally renowned arts high school is a worthy goal. If money were no object, the city could go on a massive school building campaign. But even with a significant reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the city would be on the hook for about half of the cost of the new facility. Trying to reduce costs will be difficult at the Chinatown site. Planners must consider the high prevailing wages for downtown construction workers and the challenges of building near Interstate 93.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority recently gave the city the go-ahead to prepare its schematic design. But more must be known about this project and potential alternatives before going forward. On Wednesday, the School Committee is scheduled to receive a facilities briefing from the school department. It’s an opportunity to begin a needed discussion about whether this project is worth the massive expense.