Back to school means new classmates, new teachers and, for some students, new buildings.
Across Massachusetts, 10 brand new public schools opened this academic year and many more are in some phase of construction. 25 Investigates Ted Daniel examined state data to determine why some communities have been able to get shiny new state-of-the-art facilities and others - despite crumbling school buildings - have not.
‘Probably the best system’
Massachusetts has a system like no other in the country when it comes to funding school construction. Everyone pays for it. A penny of every dollar collected under the sales tax goes directly to funding public school projects.
"We have created what we believe is probably the best system in the country right now," said Jack McCarthy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the agency that allots state dollars to school construction projects. "The greatest thing for us is our source of revenue. We don't need to rely on an appropriation each year. That helps us plan."
The formula used to determine which construction and renovation projects get funded is based on a set of established priorities, adds McCarthy. The list includes: structural integrity, present or future overcrowding issues, loss of accreditation, outdated HVAC systems, replace or add to obsolete buildings.
According to McCarthy, the process was created to level the playing field between wealthy and distressed communities.
"It's very measured and very prescriptive, but we feel that it leads us to finding the most urgent and needy buildings," said McCarthy.
New Stoughton High
In Stoughton, a new era began this academic year with the opening of a brand new high school. The new Stoughton High School features a sparkling 1200 seat gym, a black box theater, a genius bar and 21st Century Science Labs.
The $123 million building took about two years to complete. Principal Juliette Miller says it was finished on time and on budget.
"This is amazing. It's filled with such hope of opportunity," said Miller, during the ribbon cutting for the new high school. "It's the space that our kids deserve, and it really is going to be an amazing facility for them to grow, learn, develop and work together."
The new building replaces the old high school next door, which was built in 1923.
A video provided to 25 Investigates by the town's local access station shows a leaking roof that would drench the ceiling tiles and cause them to fall, bubbling plaster on walls and ceiling, peeling paint and an antiquated heating system.
Problems at Pickering
Thirty miles north of Stoughton in the city of Lynn, things look much different for the students of Pickering Middle School. The building has many of the same problems that the old Stoughton High School had – peeling paint, bubbling plaster and leaky ceilings. But, the building, which was constructed in 1916, is still in use and very overcrowded.
"It's got an atmosphere to it that's very dark and depressing," said Tom Bishop, a Pickering Middle School parent. "You would write a horror movie about it. You really wouldn't want to teach children there."
The MSBA collected $602 million last year for school construction. That money was used to fund some or most of the construction costs, depending on how much individual school districts can afford.
The agency typically contributes anywhere from 31% to 80% of the total costs. The amount is determined by various economic indicators like reduced and free lunch, property values and income factors, said the MSBA's McCarthy, adding that projects typically stall at the local or district level.
The MSBA says it invited Lynn to build two new middle schools to alleviate overcrowding. But in 2017 residents there overwhelmingly voted to reject the plan, which would have required the city to borrow $188 million dollars and raise property taxes.
The city's new mayor, Thomas McGee, told 25 Investigates he is committed to, "focusing on fiscal stability that creates space for long-term capital improvement needs," such as new school buildings.
In Stoughton, on the other hand, voters easily approved a tax hike to pay the town's share of nearly $71 million for the new high school.
"We took a very active approach to do that," said Miller, the principal at Stoughton High. "We did a lot of roadshows. We'd go into the community and really talk about the needs and why the old building wasn't good enough. We spent a lot of time educating our voters on what was going on."
Currently, across Massachusetts, 55 projects are in the "Construction Phase," totaling $1.6 billion.
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