The town’s plans to renovate Pollard Middle School cleared a major hurdle Wednesday when the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) voted to invite Needham to participate in the latest round of funding assistance for major school construction projects.
The MSBA is responsible for funding capital improvement projects in the state’s public schools. It received applications this past spring from 63 communities, and Needham was among 19 to be invited into the MSBA’s eligibility period.
MSBA staff had notified the town in advance of the decision, which came as something of a pleasant surprise to Superintendent Dan Gutekanst, who said he was uncertain about the MSBA’s ability to commit substantial funds.
“School construction projects have become very expensive and the state has been really scrambling to find the funding to support the projects,” he said after announcing the decision at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting.
“This is a huge win for Needham,” School Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter said at the meeting. “An MSBA partnership means that the state will share in the cost of this project.”
Longo Carter noted that MSBA funds covered more than 20% of the cost of the Sunita Williams School construction project. With the Pollard project estimated to cost $313.9 million, that translates to a potential $62 million state contribution.
The MSBA vote initiates a 270-day period for Needham to complete certain preliminary requirements to remain eligible, some of which it has already done. For example, Needham has a Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) to manage the project.
“The good thing is that the town of Needham has seen this movie before,” said Gutekanst. “We already have a PPBC, and other major components are in place.”
One element not in place is the MSBA requirement of “confirmation of community authorization and funding to proceed,” which will need Town Meeting approval this May.
“The first thing we have to do is appropriate funding for a feasibility study, and that would be done in conjunction with the MSBA,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick.
That cost is expected to be just under $4 million. “And it has to be cash,” said Fitzpatrick. “It can’t be funded by debt.”
All according to plan
Needham’s submission to the MSBA was guided by the School Committee’s Master Plan. Pollard was listed as its top priority with the added intention of better positioning the town for future construction of a new Mitchell Elementary School.
This was met with some opposition, given the advanced age and seemingly more dire condition of Mitchell, and that Pollard had received more recent facility improvements.
But the School Committee felt the better option was to renovate and expand Pollard first to facilitate the return of sixth grade students to the campus. This will be done in a way that Longo Carter said will “maintain the benefits of a somewhat separate sixth grade experience while integrating it into a Grades 6-8 building.”
Under the plan, the vacated High Rock School would be converted to a three-section elementary school. Funding would then be sought to construct a new Mitchell facility by 2037.
With High Rock available as elementary school space, the Mitchell project could be pursued without the costly need to create a temporary swing space to house Mitchell students displaced by the construction.
The Master Plan scenario covers more than a decade of activity, and securing the $4 million for a feasibility study at this May’s Town Meeting is the first major action item.
The next major expenditure will be the cost to complete a detailed design and construction plan, with funding to be determined at the fall 2026 Town Meeting.
The fate of the project could be decided in the November 2026 election, the likely date for an inevitable ballot question for a Proposition 2 1/2 override that could exceed $200 million.
If all goes according to plan, construction could begin at Pollard in the summer of 2028, with an expected three-year construction schedule. The fall of 2031 could see Pollard opening as a Grade 6-8 school at the same time Mitchell students relocate to High Rock to make way for the renovation/replacement of Mitchell.