Photo: Belmont High School Building Committee Chair William Lovallo.
The future of a new Belmont High School will be decided on Tuesday, Nov. 6 when residents vote whether to authorize a debt exclusion for more than $200 million for a new high school, according to the head of the committee shepherding the project from concept to completion.
“We are looking at the November general election, definitely,” said Belmont High School Building Committee Chair William Lovallo, who made the announcement after the Belmont High School project crossed a significant milestone when the Belmont School Committee unanimously approved the recommendation of School Superintendent John Plehan to house 7th through 12th grades in the new school.
The School Committee’s action took place before members of the Belmont High School Building Committee, the Board of Selectmen, the design and project management teams and 85 residents who crammed into the Wellington Elementary School’s cafeteria on Tuesday, Jan. 23.
With Belmont’s student enrollment continuing to skyrocket – it is expected to increase district-wide by 375 students between now and the 2024-2025 school year – Phelan said the only grade option that will allow the school district to meet its educational vision while being financially viable while adding space required to house the K-12 pupil population is to create a 7th to 12th grade high school.
The presentation, which included data Phelan has shown to the committee and the public for the past year highlighted the disadvantages the district would face by selecting another configuration. For instance, a 9-12 high school would require the town to finance and build a new elementary school and expensive renovations in an 8-12 school.
“This is a really exciting time, it’s also a very anxious time to change your configuration,” said Phelan as the high school transforms from a 9-12 traditional model into essentially two sections: a lower high school for grades 7 to 9 and an upper school for 10-12.
“But as long as we do a good job within our schools, the rest will take care of itself,” said Phelan.
Immediately after the vote, the building committee selected the “bow tie” design scheme (known as C.4.2) from four approaches that survived a year-long process. See all of the designs here.
While the building committee selected its “favorite” style, the design phase is at its beginning stage, according to representatives from the architectural firm commissioned to create the new school.
“We are not by any means done at this point. We will continue our work together,” said Brooke Trivas, principal and project lead at the firm Perkins+Will, a notion reiterated by Owner’s Project Manager Thomas Gatzunis.
With grade configuration and design in hand, the project – easily the largest construction project in Belmont’s 159-year history – will quickly gather steam in the creation of a schematic diagram as well as a clearer picture of how much it will cost. Last week, an initial rough estimate of the same design approved by the building committee came in at approximately $310 million.
According to Lovallo, the debt exclusion vote will be one of two watershed events the project will face this year. The second is the production of “a large document” known as the Project Funding Agreement. The PFA is the primary contract the MSBA enters into with districts whose school projects have been approved to receive reimbursement grants.
The PFA also governs the relationship between the district and the MSBA during the school building process from design through construction and completion of the project and will determine how much the Massachusetts School Building Committee will reimburse the town in construction costs.
“Our work will be intense until July as we will produce the PFA for the MSBA and that will bind us with the state sometime in August,” said Lovallo, who said an independent group of residents would work gathering support for the debt exclusion.
Tuesday’s meeting was mainly a reiteration of the information and data gathered and formulated from a year of public meetings and other forums. Lovallo began the session with a detailed, step-by-step retelling of how the cost of the project was determined, the amount that will be reimbursed by the state, and how the project will impact residential taxes.
One week before, the committee announced the initial rough estimate for a new high school – mostly new construction with minor renovation – would cost approximately $310 million with Belmont residents picking up $231 million after the state’s reimbursement.
Lovallo stressed was it was “not a wise choice” to make direct cost comparisons between Belmont and other high school projects as factors as diverse as enrollment, the sum of the renovations, removing hazardous material and abatement expenses and how much it would cost to phase the building onto the site while students are being taught there.
In addition, the project cost during the feasibility study stage is more an educated estimate than firm figures, calculated using a formula incorporating the building’s total square footage and not the actual cost of installed building’s mechanical systems (HVAC operations, for example) or the complexity of constructing science labs and other types of construction spaces.
With the new 7-12 school topping 422,700 sq.-ft., “[the high school] will have a large project cost,” said Lovallo. But a big price tag does not mean the building is riddled with extravagances. “I can say to those that question if we are building an opulent building, the answer is no.”
“The Building Committee continues to focus on cost-effective solutions to remain fiscally responsible and not just in capital costs but also in operating costs,” he said.
Lovallo said the “Belmont” cost for the building would be impacted by how much the Mass School Building Authority will provide for reimbursement. Currently, the state is looking to chip in 36.89 percent of “eligible” costs, a significant portion which is made up of a cap on construction costs of $326 per square foot, anything above that amount is Belmont’s to pay. There are opportunities for the reimbursement rate to increase with incentive points up for demonstrating, for instance, a high efficiency designed building, retaining a portion of the existing school and showing good capital maintenance practices.
Lovallo concluded saying the estimated $310 million cost is “within about 5 to 10 percent accuracy” of the final price tag so a 10 percent reduction in the cost of the new school would see the last price tag fall to approximately $280 million with Belmont’s bill knocked down to the low $200 million.
“I am optimistic that … we will find ways to reduce the project cost from the numbers we have been discussing,” he said.