For the past few Monday nights, the City Council Ways and Means Subcommittee has been digging into numbers looking for ways to pay for a new high school.
This week, the meeting opened with a long and emotional public comment section with residents expressing their feeling and opinions about the project, the Wonderland site and the ways the city might pay for it. School Committee members, parents, students and successful graduates all spoke passionately about the need for a new school to give Revere students a fair chance for a successful future. Several speakers stressed the risk of Revere High losing its accreditation without a new building, and how it could handicap students applying to colleges. They raised the need for a new middle school, which would be sited at the old Revere High once students move to Wonderland. One recent graduate offered statistics about how community investment in education raises property values.
But pro-high school residents were not the only ones to weigh in. One disabled resident spoke about skyrocketing tax and water bills and wondered how he could pay any more. An East Mountain Avenue resident spoke about living through the construction of two new schools and problems with traffic and speeding in the neighborhood. A concerned father questioned if there were mental health or substance abuse recovery programs around the Wonderland site. He said the city needs to keep students safe.
Mayor Brian Arrigo and High School Senior Project Manager Brian Dakin presented some nuts and bolts of a financial plan to the committee. The new revised total cost of the school at Wonderland has been reduced from $499 million to $470.6 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) reimbursement is expected to be $180 million or 38 percent. Revere’s portion of the tab will be $290.2 million.
Dakin said the School Building Committee was able to save $7.5 million in value engineering, aka cuts to the project. Lighting for the tennis court has been eliminated for about $1 million in savings. Dakin did not go into detail about other cuts; however, he did say there was nothing eliminated that would affect academic programing.
Arrigo presented a slate of ideas to fund a high school stabilization fund to help pay for the bond for the school, particularly by 2028, when payments will be $17 million a year. Throughout his presentation, Arrigo continually stressed that the city is looking at strategies that do not require an override. Arrigo’s plan included channeling 30 percent of Revere’s free cash or annual budget surplus to the Stabilization Fund. Also included in the plan are 50 percent of all building permit fees from Suffolk Downs and 50 percent of any funds from auctions held as a result of foreclosures. The city would also tap the Education and Technology Fund, which is generated by a fee on cable service, and the community investment fund, which is a fund developers pay into to mitigate the effects of development projects. The mayor also proposed capping increases in city and school spending to 4 percent.
City councillors and Mayor Arrigo fell into a slightly heated exchange about the Wonderland site. Councillors Daniel Rizzo and Anthony Zambuto have consistently asked that the city take another look at building at the current School Street site and keeping Wonderland on the city tax rolls.
Both Dakin and School Superintendent Diane Kelly warned that switching the site might risk MSBA funding and support for the project. Dakin also warned that switching sites, while not impossible, would increase the total cost of the project because of costs associated with the current site, lost time and inflation.
Councillors opposed to the Wonderland site have repeatedly raised the possibility that the $29.5 million the city expects to pay for the Wonderland site could jump by millions of dollars once the eminent domain taking makes its way through court. Arrigo said that wasn’t expected, but contingency funding of $10-$15 million for the site has been included in the budget.
After an onslaught of numbers, Councillor-at-Large Marc Silvestri said his head was spinning. “As a body we need to make a decision. I’m not saying it will be a slam dunk or an easy process or we should just build it and not worry about paying for it. Now we’re going backward in the process – talking about sites. We’ve been up here for three years talking about how we’re going to do this. As a body we need to make a decision, and we need to make it in a timely manner,” said Silvestri.
Councillor-at-Large Gerry Visconti, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, wrapped up the meeting by addressing the council’s hesitation to approve the schematic design with the $470.6 million budget in early March as required by the MSBA. “We’ve been talking about this for three-plus years, but we, as a City Council, have just received a breakdown of what the funding sources may or may not be. I don’t want to hear we have to rush through this. This is a $470 million project. Some might not like the numbers, and the numbers are always changing. How can we make a funding decision without knowing how it will be funded?” said Visconti.