Katherine Craven, superstar

When one state official does a superlative job, does anybody notice?

Which brings us to the case of Katherine Craven.  Craven, the first executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority  and first deputy state treasurer, was named executive director of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority on Monday.

Craven is probably one of the only people in state government who is routinely described by Beacon Hill insiders as a superstar.

Tapped to handle state budget chores by Thomas Finneran, the former House speaker and one-time ways and means chairman, nearly 20 years ago, Craven is a proven watchdog.  Not only did the Boston native help draft the state’s school building reform program, she oversaw its implementation after she became head of the school building authority in 2004. She has monitored $3 billion in state school building assistance spending.  

The authority’s accomplishments are impressive and include saving $2.9 billion on interest costs for cities, towns, and regional school districts;  $1 billion by clearing up a massive backlog of audits; and $230 million by forcing school districts to focus on classrooms and other academic facilities rather than extras like pools or  press boxes.

By Craven’s own account, she made “a lot of enemies” in the job. When she capped the building projects waiting list, many municipal officials were not amused. But her work helped bring discipline to the notoriously chaotic school building process, which took  years to reimburse communities for building expenses, allowed districts to jockey for positions on the school building list, and failed to audit building projects.

In her new position, Craven will oversee a five-year, $3 billion capital spending plan designed to move the University of Massachusetts system up in the ranks of the country’s leading public universities. New science facilities for the five campuses are at the top of the building projects list, along with housing, administrative and recreational plans.

Why does the UMass building process need a watchdog of Craven’s caliber? Recall that in 1977, two state senators, Majority Leader Joseph DiCarlo, a Revere Democrat, and Assistant Minority Whip Ronald MacKenzie, a Burlington Republican, were sentenced to federal prison for their roles in taking bribes related to the construction of the UMass Boston’s campus on Columbia Point.

The Ward Commission investigated that episode and concluded, “We have learned that corruption is a way of life in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Some people might argue that not much has changed, which puts even more pressure on Craven. 

                                                                                                                                                –GABRIELLE GURLEY


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