EASTHAM — If the state Senate’s budget proposal for fiscal 2024 makes it through negotiations with the House this month unscathed, the Nauset Regional High School renovation project will receive another $7.2 million to offset rising costs. That’s on top of the $36.6 million the district has already received from the Mass. School Building Authority to help pay for the project.
This would be the second funding win in six months for the project, which faced a possible roadblock when the lowest bid, from Brait Builders, came in at $134.3 million in October 2022.
Voters in the four district towns, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Brewster, first approved a total budget of $131.8 million for the project in March 2021, with $104.9 million earmarked for construction. But when the Nauset Regional School Committee found that the winning bid exceeded the estimated construction budget by $30 million, it decided to go back to voters to authorize additional taxpayer funding.
“We’d already spent a fair amount of money,” said committee chair Chris Easley. “We’d been given authority to build a school and had moved in that direction. So, it just logically made sense to keep going.”
Shaving $30 million off the budget was not an option: at the bid presentation on Oct. 27, 2022, Nauset Regional High School Building Committee chair Greg Levasseur told the school committee that they would have to scale back the renovation footprint by a third to do that.
Labor shortages, inflation, and supply shortages all contributed to the ballooning difference between the estimate and the actual bid, Easley said. Subcontractor bids came in $19 million higher than expected, with HVAC alone surpassing the pre-bid estimate by $9 million, he said.
The committee’s request to approve up to an additional $38.1 million for construction, increasing the total budget by 22.5 percent to $161.2 million, passed easily in mid-January, with 71 percent of voters across the four towns in favor.
Meanwhile, district leaders also reached out to elected officials, the Mass. Association of School Committees, and the Superintendents Committee to ask for help in bridging the funding disparity, Easley said. Nauset Public Schools Supt. Brooke Clenchy confirmed that she arranged meetings with legislators “as soon as we realized that we were going to have a substantial budget gap.”
“The superintendent asked us maybe nine months ago about this, but we advised them that whatever we do, it will be retroactive,” state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro said last week.
“We are incredibly appreciative of the Senate recognizing the fiscal issues we are up against,” Clenchy said.
Easley said that the district had seen similar situations elsewhere in the Commonwealth where bids had surpassed estimates for library construction projects, and the state had authorized additional funding accordingly. “That’s part of what made us hopeful,” he said.
“Education has been promised a ton of things, and the delivery is often much less robust than the promise. I was pleasantly surprised by this,” Easley added.
The infusion of another $7.2 million is part of a $100-million Mass. School Building Authority package in the proposed Senate ways and means budget aimed at addressing inflated construction costs for school building projects across the Commonwealth. It would bring the total state subsidy for the project to $43.8 million.
The supplemental MSBA grants represent one possible use of $1 billion in revenue to be unlocked in fiscal 2024 by the Fair Share Amendment passed in November 2022, which is essentially a millionaire’s tax in Massachusetts that’s earmarked for education and transportation.
The proposed House and Senate budgets don’t agree on how to spend that money, however. For example, while the Senate wants to allocate $100 million to MSBA construction grants, the House is proposing the same sum go towards a program for greening and retrofitting school buildings.
Time will tell which priorities prevail when the final budget lands on Gov. Maura Healey’s desk in July.
Cyr said he thinks “there’s a good shot” the MSBA grants will pass. “But I want to have a little humility,” he said. “You have a lot of members of both the House and the Senate whose districts are affected by it.”
It is true that Nauset High is not alone. From Stoneham to Andover to Lowell, school construction projects across the Commonwealth are blowing past their budgets.
Easley said that Phase 1B, which will represent 60 percent of the project, is slated to wrap up in August 2024. Completion of Phase 2 is on track for August 2025, with final landscaping and paving done in December of that year. If all goes according to plan, students will spend the 2025-2026 school year in the brand-new building.
While Brait Builders got to work at the beginning of February, just weeks after the funding authorization passed, there is a formal groundbreaking scheduled for June 14, Easley said.