Friday, July 18, 2008

Digging Into Cahill's School Proposal

As I said earlier, Treasurer Cahill's proposal to create state-sponsored school designs, in order to save costs, is a great idea. He says it could cut costs up to 30% - which it may - but it would also be the state's way of reigning in some of these crazy-expensive schools that wealthy towns are building. As I said before, there are good ideas amongst his proposal and bad. I'm glad he's making the proposal so we can talk about them - and hopefully form some sort of concrete action using the good.

So, here's the good stuff:
  • His proposal could save the state and local towns tens of millions every year.
  • A state-sponsored design would set a base level of what's needed in schools, so at least we'll have all new schools complete with what should be standard.
  • We'll be able to update these designs to make sure they're tested and work well.
Here's the bad stuff:

High schools aren't just schools, they're community buildings. By banning towns from adding parts to the project that benefit the entire community, he's
  • Making it less likely schools will get through overrides,
  • Reducing the ability of towns to provide what they think their kids need (and no town should be prevented from doting - or deciding things democratically),
  • Ignoring the fact that schools need some of these things he'd like to ban. Field Houses have become necessary for sports like indoor track. Towns that have hockey rinks actually break even, if not outright profit, because other towns pay big bucks (tens of thousands a year) to pay for the rights to use rinks.
  • Meanwhile, residents lose the ability to have public rinks or pools, where their kids can learn to skate or swim, etc. More importantly, he's removing the concept that these buildings are community builders. Case in point, Swampscott's high school and senior center are one in the same, and the field house is open to all in the community to use for working out. There would be no senior center or open field house in Swampscott under Cahill's plan.
If a town wants to add a pool, or a field house, or a hockey rink, or have a gigantic, beautiful theater that goes above and beyond the standard state plan - they shouldn't be prevented from doing so. All of those things, in the end, benefit the entire community. Heck, these are the kinds of things that make a community.

Furthermore, each community's needs are different. Marblehead, right next door, built an entirely unique theater that's 3/4 of a circle, with the seats rising high up in a dramatic stadium-seating setting. It's quite remarkable, smaller than a typical theater, but significantly more dramatic. It's where they perform serious drama, likely making them a school that's better at the art. They didn't need or want a standard theater, because Marblehead already has one of the nicest theaters for students in all of Massachusetts - it's just in their Middle School (which used to be their high school).

By being a little different, Marblehead was actually being smart. Each town knows their needs better than the state, so the state should be willing to work with towns - providing plans if they want them, but also letting towns modify them if needed - so we can save costs and build better projects in the process. Many towns will just need the standard plan, some towns may want to alter them, for some towns their landscape won't allow for a standard plan (up to 50% of projects, according to the article). Other towns may want something different or with more features than the standard plans. All should be encouraged. .

That said, I concede Treasurer Cahill's point that towns shouldn't be able to wrack up a huge bill with the intentions of passing off nearly half the costs to the state. Newton's $200 million-dollar project may have been something residents were more than happy to bestow upon their kids, but Massachusetts shouldn't have to pick up 40% of the price tag. Quite likely, the biggest savings (for the state) under Cahill's proposal would be by neutering these school plans - but, as I've already pointed out, that's not an answer that's any better than the status quo.

So what should the state do?

It should be obvious. Currently, the state will reimburse communities 40-80% of the costs of these buildings, irregardless of the costs of the project. Why not set up a hard cap, in addition to the state's soft cap? Why not, for example, say that the state won't contribute any more than $30-40 million to any project at the 40% rate? Newton could have its $200 million dollar school, but only if it were willing to pay $160 million instead of $120. The state could set a higher hard cap for the urban school systems that tend to get the higher percentage of state reimbursements, so the hard-cap system would work across the state.

Furthermore, the concept of having standard state school designs is a good concept, because they will save costs. So, let's not only create them, but encourage towns to use them. Why not, for example, give towns something like a 5% reimbursement bonus for choosing a state-sponsored design, if the town has a suitable site for one of those designs. A 5% bonus would be enough to encourage towns to use the state designs, while also not eating into the cost differential between the state and private plans. Many - likely most - cities and towns across Massachusetts will want to save costs, even just a couple million, so it's an option that will promise to be popular.

In any event, Treasurer Cahill's idea is interesting, fresh and appreciated. Maybe he does have some good ideas after all, in addition to his constant bickering with the Governor. However, Cahill needs to work better with the administration and Beacon Hill on state policy in the future, because it's clear that both camps are unwilling to work with each other. Solutions come when politicians and constituents work like a pack with a common goal, not when the political elite acts like cats with sharp claws, ready to thrust and hiss at any to come near. When that happens, good ideas go no where.


Anonymous said...

Even before Treasurer Cahill had endorsed the concept of standardized design the MSBA has been promulgating rules and regs that prohibit state financial participation in what have been called educational frills. Their current rules and regs would not allow state financial participation in swimming pools or ice rinks. Additionally they have promulgated size and cost standards for design that do not allow for deviation (with MSBA financial participation). Their point to the locals has been that you may design and build what you want, but we will only pay for a percentage of "approved design and construction". So your idea of not putting in a ban on extra construction but rather a hard cap has already been implemented.

The Newton North project has a hard cap of $44.5 million of MSBA financial participation. They were allowed to design and build what they wanted, and the taxpayers of Newton will be left to pick up an expense of about $160 million. Good luck to them.

As far as the idea of standardized design one of the major expenses involved in school building is design. If we have an agreed upon design that can be used in fifty percent of the projects we as a state will save hundreds of millions of dollars. Since the MSBA is limited by law to 20 percent of sales tax revenue every dollar saved means that more projects can be done. In year one (2007) of the lifting of the moratorium on school building assistance the MSBA was inundated with school building requests, many of which have to be deferred because of the financial constraints on the MSBA.

Finally I like your idea on incentives. The MSBA already utilizes a system of financial incentives that allow a community to get additional MSBA financing for the utilization of certain building practices, such as "green building". The MSBA awards financing points to localities for the inclusion of such preferred practices which drive up the total percentage of project cost to be borne by the MSBA.

As a local official I applaud the Treasurer not just for this proposal but for his stewardship of the MSBA, which was designed literally from scratch. He has taken a lot of pushback from the locals over some of his ideas, but has held pretty firm. He certainly will reap some political benefit as he looks to higher office.

Bill Manzi
City of Methuen

Ryan Adams said...

I'm glad to hear it - I half thought that would be the case. That said, Cahill's plans would alter that, because none of those things could even be added to the building at a city or town's expense. Adding another building, and another project, can add up to higher costs, especially if they're done at seperate times.

Having state designs at the ready will definitely decrease costs; that's not in question. What is in question are the incentives & penalties we use to get towns to comply. The very fact that they'll be cheaper will mean towns will tend to go with them, anyway, without threatening to pull all funding if they don't go with the plans to the T. Or maybe among the options, we should include plans that have some of the frills (Field House, pool, rink, etc.), with the understanding that the state still won't reimburse towns for them.

Thanks for your comments, Bill. They're much appreciated and certainly add to my knowledge on this issue.

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