Expect quiz on Vets heating system
Council to hear school request to release bond funding
That’s what Councilman Ed Ladouceur, chair of the finance committee, says he wants from the School Department before considering a request for funds to replace the aging heating system at Veterans Junior High School. The cost of that job is projected at $6 million. Specifications for the job have been advertised and school chief budget officer Anthony Ferrucci expects to have bids in another month.
Hopeful that bids come in at $6 million or less, he said yesterday, “I’m still biting my fingernails.”
But if the manner in which the finance committee handled the school request for $85 million in building repairs and upgrades is an indication, the School Committee should be biting its fingernails over the release of $4,060,400 in bond funds approved by voters in 2006.
Under the school administrative plan, the upgrades to Vets would happen over the next two years, with the first phase of work being done this summer. The existing steam boiler system would be replaced with natural gas fired roof air systems. The elimination of the steam system would make for drier conditions and provide improved heating controls throughout the building.
The money would come from two sources: $4.8 million schools already have approval to borrow from the 2006 bond, plus what would come from the last of that $25 bond – the $4.06 million.
However, following consideration of the department’s $85 million school building bonding request, which never reached the council floor, it is apparent that not only are there questions about selected school projects, but also whether the city might be better off investing in new schools, rather than fixing up old ones. Vets was one school suggested for replacement. The cost is significant.
Estimates to build a school to house more than 1,000 students is $100 million. The cost of building new schools and upgrading others was placed in the range of $400 million by some of those attending the finance committee hearing earlier this month. Saying he wanted more information and in particular a state Department of Education assessment of school improvements, which won’t become available until May, the committee voted to postpone consideration of the $85 million bond. The action virtually makes it impossible for the School Committee to gain state legislative approval to bring the bond before voters in a special election this fall.
This pushes the school five-year plan for upgrades ranging from the removal of asbestos to the replacement of roofs, heating systems and classroom improvements back at least a year.
Superintendent Philip Thornton is resigned to that possibility.
“I guess we wait until 2018,” Thornton said of voter consideration of a new capital school bond. But Thornton doesn’t want to wait to replace Vets heating. Bond funds approved by the voters are available for that work. The council must, however, approve their release.
“We’ll see how it stands on its own merit,” Ladouceur said of the school request to free up $4.06 million. Ladouceur said the school administration has “to be a lot more forthcoming to me” for him to approve the plan. He said he is looking for “accountability,” which he feels he didn’t get on funds spent last summer on upgrades to the gymnasiums, auditoriums and other public areas at Vets and Pilgrim.
“I want to know where it was spent, how it was spent, because I’m hearing they over spent [the $3.1 million budget] by 30 percent. They’re going to have to do a lot more than walk in and ask for $4 million. I want documentation.”
Documenting the projected costs to Vets heating should be relatively easy. The question may be whether the council is comfortable making more improvements to the school if there is sentiment to build a new school. And if the council advocates a new school, which would need voter approval of the funding, what to do about Vets in the interim.
A factor that could play in the decision is the results of an air and mold study to be done at the school.
“It’s going to be tight,” Ferrucci said when asked if those reports would be available in time for the council meeting March 6. He thought some “preliminary reports” could be available by then.
Ladouceur isn’t convinced it’s a dire situation.
“The sky is falling; the heating system is failing. They haven’t done due diligence. They’re in the business of education, not construction.”
Referring to improvement last summer, Ladouceur said, “They spent a lot of money on feel good stuff. That makes me question their priorities. I have to gain a lot of confidence with this School Committee that they’re not going to be overspending it.”
Of the $4.06 million schools are seeking to access, in addition to $1.2 million for Vets heating, $500,000 would be earmarked for additional athletic fields at Toll Gate, $560,000 for school door locks system wide; $250,000 for kitchen improvements at Winman and Pilgrim; $250,000 for renovations to the former Greene School to expand the West Bay Collaborative program operating there; $375,000 to bring the Gorton gym and auditorium up to fire code with sprinklers; $500,00 for the Vets elevator and $300,000 for contingency.