At 11:05AM yesterday morning, in a State House hearing room filled with
advocates for local school projects, the Massachusetts School Building
Authority voted to send the Wellington Elementary School and 48 other school
proposals around the state to the “feasibility” stage.
The Thompson school in Arlington was targeted for additional “planning” —
better than a “hold” status, but not as immediately promising as the
These decisions were based on many months of careful study of local project
needs by the SBA staff.
The “feasibility” listing was the best news that any community could get at
this stage of the state process. However, the SBA made very clear that its
vote did not constitute a final approval or even an endorsement of any
specific local project plan.
By including Belmont’s Wellington school on the feasibility list, the SBA
did three things: The SBA recognized the real need for the project,
discounting the possibility of alleviating that need through reprogramming
or regionalization; the SBA judged that Belmont is far enough along in
its development of community support for the project that the project stands
a good chance of moving forward soon; and the SBA committed to work with
Belmont to make the project happen, provided that the SBA’s further study
reconfirms the need and that Belmont and the SBA can agree on the final
shape of the project.
The Wellington project is further along than some admitted to the
feasibility list yesterday. It has already undergone a local feasibility
study. An architect retained by a Town-Meeting-approved building committee
has already, in fact, designed a building. This work probably helped
Belmont make the list by demonstrating readiness.
However, over the next few months, we will learn just how far the SBA will
go in seeking to do its own study of the project — it may substantially
accept the work that Belmont has done, or it may raise new questions
about the project.
The SBA did make clear that it is going to work hard to stretch its
dollars. It will make its own independent judgments of necessity. It will
only pay for educational necessities and will favor highly functional
designs. It will not pay for project features that reflect collateral
community goals, although those features may be included at community
The SBA did not specify a timeline for the feasibility process yesterday,
although we should have some confidence that the SBA will move
expeditiously, based on their past performance, their stated commitment to
moving projects out, and the relatively short list of targeted projects. At
the end of the feasibility process, if the SBA’s study reconfirms its
intention to move forward, the SBA may conduct a public meeting including
community members before finally voting to approve project scope and budget.
The feasibility listing does not start a clock ticking for final community
approval of the project in the form of a debt exclusion vote. However, once
the SBA does finally approve a project scope and budget the community will
have a 120 day window in which to achieve final local financial approval.
Failure to achieve local financial approval in that window may lead to the
project dropping back for reevaluation — the SBA wants to keep its funds
flowing to needed projects and does not want to have its capital tied up in
local political disputes.
Earlier this year, the SBA had asked each community, regardless of size, to
target a single top priority project. This reflected, in part, the concern
that each community be well focused on a single project to assure success.
The limitation to one project also operated to favor smaller communities
over large communities with many school needs and so redressed a perceived
bias towards larger communities in the process that existed before the
reforms that created the SBA. In effect, in this round, the SBA wanted to
let smaller communities catch up.
The SBA left the door open to addressing 2d and 3d priorities in subsequent
rounds, a point that one board member noted out of apparent concern for
large communities. In Belmont, the 2d priority would be the High School. In
every round of feasibility study approvals, the SBA will advance projects
that meet a clear need and are well supported in their community. The High
School may rise to the top as the SBA allocates additional funds, although
probably not until the Wellington is solidly underway.
Final SBA approval of the project will result in a minimum reimbursement to
the town from the SBA of 40% of the project costs. The
maximum reimbursement is 80%, but Belmont, which scores as relatively
wealthy under the basic distribution formula, is likely to be closer to the
minimum 40% reimbursement.
Belmont can achievable additional reimbursement points based on factors
including demonstraton of good maintenance practices, private fund-raising
for the project, certain construction management practices, and design
features like energy efficiency and innovative community uses.