Lowell Schools Did Not Seek Funds
LOWELL -- In the years it’s taken to move the Lowell High School project forward, the city and the district have not sought funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for needs at other school buildings despite a long list of capital projects, a new study found.
Excluding the high school, the district will require $143.4 million in baseline repairs to its 27 buildings over the next 10 years, according to a study conducted by the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management.
The study found the district has not submitted an application to the MSBA for any project besides the high school since 2011 as the district was “under the perception that no other projects should be submitted while the high cost high school project was in process.”
In a conversation with the MSBA, the researchers conducting the study were told the district was eligible and welcome to submit additional applications during this time.
The 83-page document presented to the City Council last week outlined these findings in a study of maintenance and custodial services for both city and school buildings.
“The biggest problem we had with the high school is it wasn’t allowing us to keep our eye on the ball,” said Mayor William Samaras. The application process consumed many of Lowell’s limited resources, he said.
In late June, the city finally secured official state support for the $345.4 million project that would renovate the high school at an expanded downtown site.
The process started years earlier. In spring 2014, the School Committee submitted at statement of interest to the MSBA, which went on to spur infighting and debate that at times divided City Council.
City Manager Eileen Donoghue said she is unsure how much the high school project stopped any other applications from being submitted, but the message is clear: the district has been reactive, not “proactive.”
“I think a city like Lowell should have an application in all the time,” she said.
She called the study “instructive” and “helpful.” Like Samaras, she believes staffing levels, exacerbated by cuts in recent years, means it’s been difficult to take a forward-thinking approach to building issues.
“The workforce that would be working on these issues was reduced,” she said, adding the number of contracts has also decreased over this period.
Donoghue said though the buildings are city-owned, the school department typically initiates the MSBA grants applications in cooperation with the city.
A tight city and school budget means hiring these positions won’t be happening in the near future, but could be part of a longtime plan, she said.
“Not this minute, because of where we are in the budget process, but I do think we have to look at this.”
The total 10-year repair cost, which is over three-quarters of recent annual school department budgets, is a “huge” number, according to Donoghue.
“Those are big numbers for any community,” she said.
School Committee member Andre Descoteaux said even if the district applies for MSBA funding, as demonstrated by the high school, securing funding can be a slow process.
“There’s not a quick fix,” he said.
According to the study released last week, every school, with the exception of the newer Morey Elementary School, will need at least $1.45 million in investments over the next five years.
The Rogers Early Learning Center, Daley Middle School and Robinson Middle School have the highest upcoming costs, each needing over $9 million in base repairs over the next ten years.
On average, the district’s buildings are 58-years-old though six are over 100 years old. These include the the Lowell High School heat generating plant, Cardinal O’Connell Elementary School, Butler Elementary School, Moody Elementary, Laura Lee Day School and Washington Elementary School.
Contributing to the pricetag are 13 district schools built between 24 and 29 years ago. Expensive building systems like boilers and roofs have a life-span between 25 and 30 years, meaning many of these systems will need to be replaced in the near future, according to the study. Already, these buildings require more maintenance in proportion to their square-footage than others in the district.
According to the study, these capital expenses will have “a significant impact” on the city’s general fund, though an up to 80 percent reimbursement rate from the MSBA could help.
It recommended organizing a meeting with the MSBA to discuss needs, establishing a schedule of applications and appointing someone in the district -- possibly the district’s chief financial officer or a new position -- to coordinate applications.
The study covered a range of other school building topics, from staffing to school safety to the spate of heating problems and gas leaks over the past school year.
The study found custodial staffing is “somewhat higher” than the industry standard for schools and suggested revising bargaining agreements to expand custodian duties to include more minor repair work.
The city and district also lack adequate staffing and structure to handle millions in upcoming capital investments, according to the study. It suggested creating a new facilities management department and a new Land & Buildings position to manage projects. The district also needs to update detailed assessments of all school and city facilities, according to the study.
Additionally, the review found a “remarkable” number of work orders relating to broken or vandalized doors and locks at district schools. A request to have a facilities meeting with the School Committee was submitted to City Council, according to Nutter.
“Given this era of increased awareness for school safety, this is just something that we as a school committee need to press forward and assure the parents that we’re doing everything possible to make these schools safe as possible,” School Committee member Nutter said.
Last week, Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin said the city and the district planned to submit a grant request regarding safety.
The study suggested the district create a list of work to be performed at school sites over the summer before the end of each school year.
It also offered several recommendations in response to building failures and closures this year, including training staff on a remote monitoring system, developing written protocols for checks during extreme weather and having current employees train new employees on buildings’ vulnerabilities.
Though the study was briefly mentioned at School Committee last week, Samaras said he expects the committee to have a full discussion of the study in coming months.
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