Aldermen approve bond authorization for new Somerville High School

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.

Somerville High School will soon begin a massive transformation.

On Wednesday the Board of Aldermen voted to authorize a bond for additions and renovations at the school.

The vote was approved by all nine of the 11 aldermen present. Matt McLaughlin and Alderman Dennis Sullivan were not in attendance.

The Somerville High School Building Committee first submitted the schematic design for the new building in January, and the following month the Massachusetts School Building Authority approved a grant for the $255,982,704 project.

There are two potential reimbursement figures, explained Director of Finance Auditor Ed Bean in an email.

The first, he wrote, is $119,706,988 of state reimbursement if the MSBA does not approve construction contingencies. The second is $123,963,307 of state reimbursement if the MSBA does approve those contingencies.

“I am focusing on the $123,963,307 number,” wrote Bean. “Assuming this amount of reimbursement, the city’s share would be $132,019,397.”

At the public hearing on March 22 Bean said the money will not be borrowed all at once, but rather in phases.

“The projected debt service will reach peak in 2027,” said Bean. “The hope would be that we don’t borrow [all at one] and we’re building up reserves.”

With the Green Line Extension, the new high school, and other projected costs, Bean said the city needs to use its stabilization funds, sales of city assets, and other means to minimize the impact on taxpayers.

Though the city will not be reimbursed in full, the board chose to move forward with the new building, said Alderman Mary Jo Rossetti, to better the lives of students.

“The project was built around the educational goal of our students,” she said in a phone interview.

The goal of the project is to incorporate 21st century learning, focusing on digital literacy, problem solving, and critical thinking, and provide collaboration between students of all backgrounds, needs and interests.

Though Somerville High is currently classified as a level one school in Massachusetts, meaning it’s a top-performing school, Superintendent Mary Skipper said the physical environment is not yet conducive to 21st century learning.

“This is the decision of a lifetime, not only for our students now, but for our students in the many years to come,” said Skipper at the March 22 meeting. “It’s a tired building … something is missing.”

One of the biggest improvements in design is a collection of common spaces for students to interact with faculty, staff and each other, fostering education outside of the classroom. The renderings shown at the meeting slightly resemble a college academic setting and campus, complete with larger lecture-style classrooms and dining commons.

Somerville High Headmaster John Oteri said the additions and renovations will pair vocational, technical and traditional academics with one another.

“[The design] will help foster better learning and produce more curious and collaborative students moving forward,” he said.

Next Wave Junior High School and Full Circle High School will also be placed on site, creating a more inclusive academic and social environment.

Director of Capital Projects and Planning Rob King said construction is set to begin in early 2018, which would include modular classrooms utilized throughout the project.

“There’s a lot of construction taking place between 2018 and fall of 2020,” he said. “Our students will be utilizing the building in the fall of 2020.”

The end date, said King, is set for 2021, which includes construction of the fields behind the school. Throughout those three to four years, he continued, a phasing plan will be developed in efforts to help minimize the disruption to students.

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