‘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. 

New Belmont High Team – So Far – Introduced to Public

Photo: Thomas Gatzunis (left) and Richard Marks of the Daedalus Projects Company.

More than 100 residents braved the cold rain Thursday night, April 6, to head to the Beech Street Center to get an early look at the progress of the construction/renovation of a new Belmont High School.

And if the albeit limited number of comments were any indication what the public is thinking, it constructs a school which will meet the needs of a growing student population but don’t go overboard.

“Keep on budget,” said John O’Connor from Precinct 5. “It should be a good job well done” but done so responsibly.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said.

The turnout was a welcomed surprise for Belmont High Building Committee Chair William Lovallo who arranged for the meeting to be held in the evening as opposed to the committee’s typical 7:30 a.m. meeting time.

“It was impressive to see this much interest so early on in the process,” said Lovallo, who is leading his second school building committee having chaired the construction of Wellington Elementary School. Much of the curiousness related to early estimates replacing the nearly 50-year-old structure will require a debt exclusion of between $80 to $200 million depending on how many grades will attend the school.

Thursday’s meeting was the opportunity for the building committee to announce the town’s Owners Project Manager as Lovallo introduced Founder and President Richard Marks and Senior Project Manager Thomas Gatzunis of the Daedalus Projects Company of Boston.

The OPM was hired by the Committee to represent the town during the design and construction phases of the building’s creation.

The town hired a familiar face with Daedalus and Gatzunis. Daedalus was the project manager for the construction of the Chenery Middle School 20 years ago (for $20 million!). For many longer-tenured residents, Gatzunis is remembered as a Belmont town employee for 32 years, rising to become the town’s director of community development.

“Tom has institutional knowledge of Belmont, its approvals process, and its public affairs challenges,” said Lovallo, who said Gatzunis’ presence was a major factor why Daedalus was selected. Daedalus’ Shane Nolan will be the on-site project manager.

Daedalus’ Shane Nolan will be the day-to-day on-site project manager for the High School.

“It is great to be back in Belmont,” Marks told the Belmontonian, who noted the team is currently building a $60 million STEM 6-12 grade school in Boston and managed the construction of the $101 million Franklin High School that opened two years ago and a new co-located middle school/renovated high school in Rockland for $82 million.

Gatzunis said that cost control and keeping the project on a schedule will be two of the most important functions he and Daedalus will provide the town.

“[Clients] get angry with me … because I’m constantly that guy saying, ‘We can’t do it'” whether some aspect of the project is too expensive or they need to keep on a tight deadline.

“It’s part of what I do is to have people angry with me. That’s why you hired me,” said Gatzunis.

The next “big step” said Marks for the Building Committee and Daedalus is the hiring of an architect which will a hired through a collaborative process between the town and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is funding up to 40 percent of the eligible cost of the new school.

While the architect will be creating separate designs for the different grade groups being proposed, Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan reiterated to the audience a talk he gave residents, parents, PTOs, and students which the one scenario alleviating the stress of overcrowding in the elementary and middle schools would be the 7th grade through 12th-grade high school.

While there are obvious questions about placing a wide-age range of students on one campus, Phelan said through careful planning; a larger school could prove beneficial educationally.

Phelan is inviting the public to hear from Education Facilitator Frank Locker on May 4 and 5 on just such a scenario. 

Residents were interested in the 7-12 grade option, with Mary Lewis liking how the district is “thinking outside the box” suggesting if the 7-12 grade option is approved the Chenery Middle School should be turned into an elementary school, creating five K-6th grade schools in Belmont, an idea that got a positive reaction.

Phil Thayer of Precinct 6 strongly suggested that the new school have a net zero energy footprints with the use of solar and energy-saving mechanicals.  

Holding his young son’s hand, Han Xu advised that a new school be functional, sacrificing on most architectural features and building fixtures, going so far as suggesting a new five grade school doesn’t need an auditorium.

“I know the trend in education construction is to be up-to-date technically but most kids already have the devices they need,” said Xu, who is a structural engineer who has worked on university buildings. 

“You can buy an Apple but it is quite expensive, or you can buy a Dell which can do all the same [tasks]. That’s how the new school should be built,” said Xu.