The Somerville Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to approve a bond issue for the construction of a new high school on March 22. The Board of Aldermen’s appropriation totaled $255,982,704, making Somerville High School the most expensive high school building project in Massachusetts history, according to a Nov. 8, 2016 Boston Globe article.
Somerville Superintendent of Public Schools Mary Skipper explained that given the ever-changing nature of education, the Somerville High School needed an improvement of its facilities to allow for more effective teaching and learning.
“The project is designed to optimize evolving educational practices with more flexible spaces that allow for more collaborative and cross-disciplinary work, while keeping and upgrading some of the more current structures such as the Field House and the Career and Technical Education shops,” Skipper told the Daily in an email.
In particular, according to the city’s website, the current high school has significant structural problems, and the school’s physical condition caused its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to be at risk.
High School Building Committee Chair and former Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said that students may begin using new facilities by fall of 2020, and that the projected completion year for construction is 2022.
Pierantozzi said the oldest section of the high school, the main entry, was constructed in 1895 and will be preserved for its historical significance. Similarly, the exterior of the library will remain intact while the interior is converted into an auditorium.
Pierantozzi said the rest of the new school will be built to the east of the existing property, and Somerville High School will have its own sports field for the first time.
“By adding a field, it’ll put a little less pressure on the competition and the shared spaces that we have in the city,” Pierantozzi said.
Bill White, president of the Board of Aldermen, explained that three independent estimates were made regarding the price figure, and they all agreed the costs would not exceed the estimated amount.
In addition, according to White, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a state agency, has approved a grant of $124 million for the school’s construction.
“Based on the schematic design and grant from the State, the City’s cost would be $131 million,” White told the Daily in an email.
Pierantozzi said that construction is needed soon and that the longer it is delayed, the pricier this project will become. He cited two instances in the past in which attempts were made to renovate the high school in the 1950s and the 1980s. Pierantozzi said that the project is already more expensive than it would have been a few decades ago, and he credited voters for recognizing the pressing need.
“Obviously, the cost has skyrocketed since those two dates, and the same thing would happen if we waited another 20 or 30 years, in addition to the fact that we’d have to spend millions of dollars short-term just to make the building usable for that 30 year period,” Pierantozzi said.
Pierantozzi noted that a new high school could have other positive impacts on the community. He said that he observed a rejuvenation of surrounding areas as a result of two schools that were constructed during his time as superintendent.
“A new school, particularly a high school, revitalizes the area,” Pierantozzi said. “The use of the building is not just as a school, it’ll be a community center.”
However, Brian McCarthy, chairman of the Somerville Republican City Committee, opposes the construction of a new high school primarily because of the negative effects he believes the increased property taxes will have on Somerville residents.
McCarthy believed that voters were deceived when they voted to approve bonds for the new high school last November. He claimed that the ballot question did not include the fact that Massachusetts’ Proposition 21/2, which limits the amount of money a city can levy from property taxes, would be overridden.
“I didn’t see the ballot question until just days before the actual vote on it,” McCarthy said. “It didn’t say anything about a Prop 21/2 override or people’s rents going up.”
However, this was stated in the wording of the ballot question regarding the new high school.
“Shall the City of Somerville be allowed to exempt from the provisions of proposition two and one-half, so-called, the amounts required to pay for the bond(s) issued in order to design, engineer, construct and equip the new Somerville High School?” the official text of Ballot Question 5 reads.
According to White, the city’s bonds will be for 30 years, with property taxes gradually increasing over the years. The largest increase will not been for about a decade.
“Because of this phasing, the major impact of the funding of the bonds on property taxes will not be seen until 2026, where the annual cost for a single family home is projected to be $290 per year and a two-family at $345,” White said.