Editorial: Sharing good school designs
Every student deserves to attend school in a building that is structurally sound, adequately heated, well-equipped and big enough to handle essential functions. But educational excellence doesn't require the school be a unique piece of architectural art.
More to the point, Massachusetts can't afford to keep building schools that meet ever-higher standards of sumptuousness and cost. Outrage over the new Newton North High School - priced at nearly $200 million and not yet completed - has spread far outside Newton and helped inspire new thinking about how schools are built and paid for in Massachusetts.
State Treasurer Tim Cahill, whose office has taken over the School Building Assistance program, has already begun rewriting the rules. He's made it clear the state will not subsidize "exorbitant" new schools. His office is meeting with local school officials in the early stages of the planning process, letting them know what he considers exorbitant, spelling out limits on state reimbursements and encouraging renovation of old schools over building new ones.
Now he's floating another good idea: standardized school designs he contends could cut building costs by as much as 30 percent.
Some architects don't like the idea, which should surprise no one. But architect and engineering costs, typically set at 10 percent of a school building's total price, are one factor in construction inflation. It's hard to calculate the cost impact of architects' egos - we know of one case from another state of a terribly designed new high school that, when seen from above, spelled out the architect's name - but the suspicion is widespread.
But while they may not like it, 21 architectural firms have expressed interest in submitting designs to Cahill's office, which will pick a few that seem most feasible for different sites. They will meet the state's extensive requirements for dimensions and facilities, but don't look for fieldhouses and swimming pools. The state won't pay anything for those frills, Cahill says.
While standardized designs are used in several states, New England's rolling hills and wetlands will make fitting the model schools on some sites difficult. But the firms whose designs win SBA approval will work with school districts to adapt them, and cost-conscious districts will factor the potential savings into their site selection process.
Standardized blueprints for public buildings is not a radical new idea: Ever notice how similar older Massachusetts National Guard Armories look? These small castles were functional for their time and remain attractive a century later. Off-the-shelf designs don't have to be ugly.
State Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, who has been pushing for standardized school designs for five years, predicts Cahill's plan could save hundreds of millions of dollars. With property taxes sky high and tax overrides an increasingly tough sell, those savings would be welcome.
MetroWest Daily News