School building formula failing Gateway Cities

Update needed and equity concerns must be addressed

THE STATE’S SYSTEM for financing the construction of new public schools is broken. Nowhere is that more apparent than the city of Lynn.

The number of students in Lynn’s schools has increased by 21 percent since 2008. Nearly half of our schools, 12 out of 26, are over 100 years old. We’ve been able to build just one new school in more than 20 years.

Despite significant efforts by the district and city to invest in our schools, we are still struggling mightily with poor building conditions and extremely limited capacity, as the Boston Globe has repeatedly reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed further light on the challenges that students and teachers across the state face due to extremely overcrowded buildings or air-quality issues related to outdated HVAC systems. Many school districts, including Lynn, never had a fair shot at even considering in-person school at the beginning of the pandemic due to these conditions.

Four years ago, Lynn voted down a proposal to build two new schools. While there were many reasons why the vote for new schools failed, a main reason was the cost to the city. In a time of record prosperity, in one of the wealthiest regions in the world, an under-resourced city needed to come up with money it didn’t have if it wanted new schools it desperately needed.

Our method for determining state aid for school construction projects, which was developed in 2004, is now outdated and inequitable. The need for renovated or new buildings is also outpacing our ability to fund projects. In a report it filed with the Legislature in December 2020, the Massachusetts School Building Authority noted, “[a]lthough the MSBA program continues to have a far reach, there is still a significant unmet and continuing need for school projects in the Commonwealth.”

This system is failing Lynn and other Gateway Cities. The school building authority has been successful in preventing instances of gross overspending, such as the Newton North debacle. But the process fails to adequately consider equity and has the effect of denying low-income students an adequate learning environment. The state stepped up to create a vision of equal opportunity in the state’s annual education budget with the Student Opportunity Act, and it’s time we create the same vision for our school construction formula.

An Act Modernizing School Construction (HD.3667/SD.2172), filed by Sen. Brendan Crighton  and Reps. Daniel Cahill and Peter Capano, all of Lynn, working with Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee and other local officials, lays out a vision for doing just that. It would double revenue for school construction, revise our school construction formula to make it more equitable, and provide additional state funding for all school building authority-approved school construction projects.

The reimbursement rate for a school building authority-approved project is determined by community income and wealth, student poverty level, and incentive points that promote a variety of best practices in construction. While the formula does take into account the percentage of low-income students served by a district, it does not provide a proportionate amount of funding for school districts serving the highest share of low-income students. We must ensure that these districts in particular receive an adequate amount of funding for school construction.

In addition, the current 80 percent cap on the school building authority’s reimbursement rate has had a disproportionately negative impact on communities like ours that need additional state support to make projects financially feasible. Had this 80 percent cap not existed, districts such as Lynn, Worcester, Springfield, and several others, would have been eligible for an additional $44 million in state aid between 2016 and 2020 alone for school construction projects approved by the school building authority.

This legislation would also require the school building authority to regularly revise its standards for reimbursement, which have been far outpaced by modern-day construction costs. Modernizing these rates moving forward, while increasing the dedicated overall revenue, will be critical to ensuring funding amounts that align with the expected costs of construction.

Finally, Massachusetts used to provide additional reimbursement to projects clearly related to efforts to improve integration, a policy that was phased out with the 2004 school building authority legislation. This bill would reinstate that policy.

We should be proud that Lynn has seen extraordinary growth in its public schools. What makes public schools special, and foundational to our democracy, is that they are universally open to anyone who comes.

Meet the Author

Jared Nicholson

Member, Lynn School Committee
To deliver on the promise of our public schools, we must reform public school construction. Our success in attracting families who see a bright future here must not become a failure, fiscally and educationally, to deliver schools that are fit for their purpose.

Jared C. Nicholson is a member of the Lynn School Committee.