‘Big Number’: New Belmont High School Price Tag Likely Topping $300 Million

Photo: Residents viewing designs for the new Belmont High School, Jan. 16.

It was always assumed a new or renovated Belmont High School would cost a pretty penny for taxpayers.

After Tuesday’s joint public meeting led by the Belmont High School Building Committee, residents now have a clearer idea of the price tag to build a new school will require a whole lot of pennies, as in about 31 billion one-cent coins.

That’s the outcome of the initial financial analysis by Daedalus Project Company’s Tom Gatzunis, the owner’s project manager for the Belmont High School Project, who presented his work to a joint meeting of the Building Committee, the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee as well as a number of residents at the Chenery Middle School on Jan. 16.

“We are giving you a brief snapshot of where we are of the cost of all the different scenarios,” said Gatzunis, pointing out the analysis presented initial cost projections for four designs – two that are minor renovation/major additions, a major renovation/minor addition and all new construction – in three grade configurations; 9th to 12th, 8th to 12th, and 7th to 12th grades.

With the focus of the joint committee on building a 7th to 12th-grade structure – which would not require the town to build a new elementary school if a 9th through 12th scheme is chosen or commit to costly revamping classrooms in an 8th through 12th grade blueprint – the project price tag for a new high school including construction and soft cost would come to approximately $310 million for a 410,000 sq.-ft. multi-story building housing 2,215 students.

Go to the Belmont High School Building Committee webpage to see an updated designs from architect Perkins+Will and financial data from Daedalus.

If approved by Town Meeting and voters through a debt exclusion vote, the new Belmont high school would be one of the most expensive ever built in the US, trailing only two mega schools in Los Angeles. Locally, it would top the current priciest high school in Somerville at $257 million and the proposed new building in Waltham at $283 million and dwarfing the controversial Newton North High School that came in at $197.5 million that opened in 2010.

Belmont will not be on the hook for the entire amount. About 36 percent of the construction cost or $81 million will be absorbed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority which is working closely with the Building Committee on the project. With the reimbursement calculated into the cost, Belmont’s share of the project comes to approximately $231 million.

What the $231 million expense means to taxpayers was explained by Town Treasurer Floyd Carman who said at 4 percent interest over 30 years of level payments, real estate property taxes would increase by $184 per $100,000 of assessed value beginning in 2020, the year construction would start. 

Below is a chart of the yearly real estate tax increase for homes at three assessed values:

  • $500,000 – $920
  • $750,000 – $1,387
  • $1 million (the average residential assessment in Belmont as of fiscal 2018) – $1,840

“The numbers are the numbers,” explained Carman.

There are less expensive options including renovating the existing school with not additions or new construction at $124 million with Belmont picking up $92 million. And a 9-12 school would be in the $180 million range, which does not include the cost of a new elementary school that Belmont Superintendent John Plehan has said would be required to meet the ever-increasing enrollment numbers in Belmont’s school.

Phelan said if any of the 9-12 designs are selected, the town would need to come up with between $72 million to $82.5 million for a new elementary school and renovations at three of the four elementary schools and the Chenery.

Whether it was sticker shock or the outcome of the analysis was expected, committee members and the public did not have any immediate reaction to the big numbers generated by the project. 

“Wow, I thought there would be a lot more questions,” said Building Committee Chair William Lovallo. He noted that the committee will not return to the cost component until mid-summer “when we will have better numbers.” 

The next joint meeting will be Tuesday, Jan. 23 when the School Committee will vote on a grade configuration moving forward while the Building Committee will select a design scheme. 

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  1. Gregory says

    I personally support the 7-12 concept but the cost is outrageous. $732-$756/square foot to build on existing town land is ridiculous. If you compare these costs to any commercial project in downtown Boston or the Seaport then they would be much higher on a square foot basis. If you compare these costs on a square foot basis to major high schools built in large metropolitan areas of New York or California then they are higher. At this size there should be some economies of scale and leverage over contractors but it appears that the current Belmont team running this project are not able to push for more realistic costs.

  2. Gregory says

    The proposed 7-12 school is 410,000 square feet. Therefore, it is costing $756/square foot to build on existing town land. In contrast, 100 Northern Ave was built in the Seaport at a cost of $581/square foot and recently sold at $866/square foot, which is one of the highest sale prices in all of Boston. These numbers include the cost of waterfront property in the Seaport for a brand new LEED Silver certified building and top-notch material upgrades for law firm, Goodwin Proctor. The town already owns the land. The numbers don’t make much sense.

  3. Jim Williams says

    As a residents and tax payers the following considerations are in play in making this decision:
    1. The building is no longer just a HS if the 7-12 configuration is proposed.. This choice eliminates the need to build a HS and a new $81 million Elementary school . Since this choice analytically reduces the cost of a HS to $230 million, the total cost of this configuration is more in line with the other projects cited in the article.
    2. Using Franklin’s excellent penny analogy, It takes 16.7 billion pennies to operate the Town’s government, schools, and utilities annually ; 167 billion pennies for 10 years,; 334 billion for 20 years; and 511 billion for 30 years.
    3. The Tressurer’s role is to do just what Floyd Carmen did and from his desk it’s as he explained. The configuration choice will determine the cost. The BOS are responsible for the financial strategy for the funding which is further governed by State law and regulations. Accordingly, a straight 30 year bond issue as reported is the best guidance available right now.
    4. The chosen configuration and its funding are subject to a 2/3rds Annual Town Meeting vote and a majority vote at the ballot box if Town Meeting approves the proposal.
    5. This question can’t responsibly be ignored. We all need to be problem solvers and ultimately decision makers.

  4. Mary Lewis says

    Thank you for covering this important issue.

    However, some of the numbers cited in this article give a misleading impression. The article compares the total project costs of a possible six-grade (7-12) junior high/high school in Belmont to four-grade (9-12) high schools in Somerville and Waltham. The Somerville H.S. Project has a design enrollment of 1590 students and the price per square foot is very similar to Belmont’s project. Belmont’s project, if extended to six grades, would have a design enrollment of 2,215 students.

    The exact Waltham figures are not available in the data link cited in the article, however, Waltham’s projected design enrollment is 1,830 students, or 21% fewer students than what Belmont projects on the upper end if it does a 7-12 school.

    In essence, if the school committee chooses the 7-12 configuration, Belmont could get two schools with a state subsidy of up to 40%.

    If the school committee chooses the 9-12 configuration, Belmont’s overcrowding problems don’t go away; they just become solely the town’s fiscal responsibility. A 40% subsidy on two connected schools is a better long-term fiscal plan.

    Belmont has a great chance to take advantage of what is essentially a gift from the state.

  5. Tom Grimble says

    “If approved by Town Meeting and voters through a debt exclusion vote, the new Belmont high school would be one of the most expensive ever built in the US, trailing only two mega schools in Los Angeles.”

    This is an alarming statement but I question the data. It seems to be drawing a fair amount of attention on Social Media and I think it is fair to ask for some evidence to support this claim. Is this based on total cost? If so, are they comparing similar size schools? Are costs for projects built in past years adjusted to today’s dollars? Is cost per Square foot or Cost per student a better way to compare different projects? Sub-urban Boston is a pretty expensive place to live and build buildings. Are comparative schools adjusted for these regional differences?

    A dialog about the costs and benefits of a new school is very helpful as we will all need to weigh in with our votes. In this climate where facts are sometimes used loosely to support one’s position, I think it is important to support claims that are controversial so that nobody jumps to any conclusions about the accuracy of the statements being made.

  6. G says

    The 7-12 school is 451,575 gross square feet. Therefore, it is costing $686.49/GSF to build on existing town land. In contrast, the 100 Northern Ave was built in the Seaport at a cost of $581/square foot and recently sold at $866/square foot, which is one of the highest sale prices in Boston. These numbers include the cost of waterfront property in the Seaport for a brand new LEED Silver certified building. The town already owns the land. Something seems wrong here…

    • says

      Thanks for catching that. I was looking to add some additional facts but decided the story was running a bit long and was going off into different directions so decided to move on. I simply didn’t go back to cut those sentences.

  7. John says

    That’s absolutely outrageous. How on earth can this be the third most expensive high school ever built in the US? Completely embarrassing for those in charge of the project.

    “The numbers are the numbers”. Truly a masterful explanation.

    • Dave Scott says

      See Mary Lewis’s comment above. Belmont needs more than a high school, and the #s are for 6 grades, not 4. On per grade and per student basis the projected cost is not out of line with that projected in Somerville and Waltham. Also, a 7-12 design allows the cost of grades 7-8 to be included in funding contribution from the state. Finally, it’s a cliche but time is money, and the 7-12 concept saves an enormous amount of time addressing lower school overcrowding.

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