Budget expansion aids school renovation project

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The new BHS wing in construction. The November 17 budget expansion prevented taxpayers from covering extra construction costs.

The last thing taxpayers want to hear about public projects is the term “budget expansion.” Fortunately, the Brookline High School Renovation Project won’t cost taxpayers more than the sum estimated in the first draft of the plan from 2018, despite unforeseen obstacles and a price hike.

On Nov. 17, Brookline Town Meeting voted to expand the budget of the BHS Renovation Project by nearly $33 million. The higher price tag is due to a number of factors, including the difficulties of building in an urban area and requirements for building over a train station. The renovation will add a new 9th grade academy to the high school and accommodate the hundreds of new students projected to enroll in the next few years. The budget expansion is pending approval from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

This is the first expansion of the project since its initial launch, and it brings the total cost of the project to $238 million. According to Assistant Head of School Hal Mason, who sits in on Building Committee meetings, lower interest rates will offset the additional cost.

“When they initially funded the project, they anticipated that interest rates would be much higher, and therefore the cost of borrowing the money and paying back the bonds would be much higher,” Mason said. “Since the cost was so low, there wasn’t really a change to how much it costs to fund the project.”

According to Mason, the deadline of the project was pushed back due to many small things going wrong. COVID-19 restrictions caused a delay in materials like concrete, and there were some unforeseen structural difficulties in the demolition of parts of the school.

“With a project as complicated as this, any little delay can cause a cascade reaction,” Mason said.

According to School Committee Member and Building Committee Co-Chair Susan Ditkoff, a large part of the budget expansion paid for rising construction costs. Brookline uses “value engineering,” or cutting unnecessary pieces, to reduce the cost of its public projects. Despite the typical value engineering to reduce the price and scope of the project, overages remained.

“The construction market was escalating at very, very high rates, much higher rates had been historically projected. The competitive bids for all of the different pieces of the project came back much more expensive than anticipated,” Ditkoff said.

According to Ditkoff, budget overages are unusual in Brookline public projects. Another obstacle responsible for increasing the price of the project was building over the train tracks near the Unified Arts Building. The Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) required the town to update its station. Ditkoff said that it cost over $100,000 each time they wanted to shut down and re-route the track to build over it.

“Anytime the MBTA was going to shut down on its own, we wanted to piggyback on that and align our construction schedule to when the MBTA was going to be shut down already, so we didn’t have to pay additional money,” Ditkoff said.

Select Board Member and Building Committee Co-Chair Nancy Heller said that the Committee is not expecting another delay or budget expansion to the project right now. Heller said that the renovation brings a number of improvements to the high school, including a renovation of Tappan Gym and a new science wing where the Roberts Wing of the high school used to be.

“The science wing of the high school will have a first floor café and culinary arts program. And there will be some other classrooms as well, but it will definitely have biology and chemistry rooms in the high school. Seniors who want to take advanced level physics would go over to the 9th grade academy and take it in the physics rooms there,” Heller said.

According to Heller, the renovation was mainly necessitated by the increasing number of students in Brookline.

“The High School was renovated in the ‘90s, but because of the number of students projected to be at the high school, we were really running out of space. The original reconfiguration and renovation was to accommodate 2100 students. The projected number of students to be in the high school within a few years is at least 2700,” Heller said.

The construction site for the new wing in the Brookline High School Renovation Project