Needham recently cleared the first hurdle in its quest for millions of dollars in state funding for school construction. However, a sobering analysis predicts the work will cost tens of millions of dollars more than had been estimated.

”A few things are different and significant,” Superintendent of Needham Public Schools Dan Gutekanst told the School Committee at its first meeting of the school year. “The costs for this project have grown significantly.”

The dramatic increase is due to new guidance from the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) on how to estimate construction costs for school projects. According to a memo from Anne Gulati, assistant superintendent for finance and administration, the cost per square foot of new MSBA-funded projects should be calculated at $500 to $700 per square foot, compared with the previous $360 per square foot.

The committee’s master plan for construction at the Pollard, Mitchell and High Rock schools has multiple contingencies based on the availability of financial support from the MSBA.

The committee’s option of choice was estimated to cost around $340 million, starting with reverting Pollard to a grade 6-8 middle school. High Rock would then become the town’s sixth elementary school and Mitchell would be rebuilt. Now that work could cost as much as $465.8 million. 

“This is a very fluid process,” said Donald Walter from Dore & Whittier, the architectural firm assisting the town on the project. “They are real numbers because they’re on a piece of paper, but they’re still very broad in nature. We don’t know what the future holds. We try to crystal ball it as best we can but it gives you an idea where this may be going.”

Potential funders to visit Pollard

Needham applied to the MSBA in April for funding to improve both Pollard Middle School and Mitchell Elementary School, listing Pollard as the higher priority in its statement of interest (SOI). The MSBA received applications from some 60 communities and plans to visit half of them. 

The MSBA will visit Pollard on Oct. 4. “They will tour the facility to develop a better understanding of the concerns at Pollard,” Gutekanst said.

According to Gulati’s memo, the MSBA will continue to evaluate funding applications it has received from all districts through the fall, and might issue eligibility invitations as early as its December board meeting.

Should Needham be invited to participate, the district would have nine months to complete certain eligibility requirements. This includes holding a local vote to appropriate funding for a feasibility study and the execution of a Feasibility Study Agreement.

Failure to complete those tasks would mean Needham would have to wait until the next MSBA filing period to get back in line for state assistance.

Gutekanst said the schools do not have a firm estimate of what a feasibility study would cost nor when the School Committee might request funding from Town Meeting.

“There’s still so much more ahead in the process with the MSBA,” he said. “We continue to work on planning even while we await the MSBA’s senior study and final decision later this winter.”

The MSBA reimbursement formula has many moving parts, and it is difficult to project how much the state can be expected to contribute toward the project. Hank Haff, the town’s director of design and construction, offered an estimate of 22% of total project cost, or roughly $100 million at current project estimates.

The school’s master plan has scenarios that involve going forward on Mitchell and Pollard with and without state funding for both schools – or with funding for one of the schools but not the other. For now, the School Committee remains focused on its preferred option.

“We always come back to the same optimal solution,” said Andrea Longo Carter, chair of the School Committee. “You do Pollard; you move Mitchell students to High Rock; you do Mitchell; and then you open up High Rock as a sixth elementary school.”

Whether that scenario will come to fruition is now a $465 million question.

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