Fuller: Tax increase needed to fund new Countryside

Newton officials are hoping to get the state to pay for one-third of the cost of a new Countryside School – but they say if residents don’t also approve a tax increase, the project won’t get off the ground.

On March 14, Newton residents will vote on three potential tax increases, including one that would fund $41 million in construction costs at the Newton Highlands elementary school. The state is expected to cover the remaining $20 million of the project, and could vote on funding later this year.

But Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and other officials have said without that tax increase, the city might lose out on those state funds.

“[It’s] not going out on a limb to say that if the override fails, we lose that money,” Newton Commissioner of Public Buildings Josh Morse told the Beacon.

“We won’t have the debt service capacity without the override,” Fuller said at a November meeting at Countryside. “It will just get really delayed and the problem with the Countryside is you’re leaving on the table about 1/3 of the cost we’d hope to be absorbed by the state.”

Raising taxes, rising waters

The March ballot measures will ask voters for three separate tax increases – one to support $2.3 million a year in payments to improve Countryside, one to support $3.5 million a year in payments for repairs at the Franklin School in West Newton and one to add $9.2 million to the city’s general budget. That last question would add $290 to the average family’s yearly tax bill, and the two school questions combined would add $183 to that yearly tax bill by 2030, with the $183 amount eventually being taken off the books after 30 years.

The Countryside School was first opened in 1953 and was last renovated in 2000, with modular structures added to the original building. The school serves Newton Highlands and Upper Falls, which have seen significant residential development in the past decade. It currently has about 380 students but officials project it to grow to more than 400, according to documents submitted to the state discussing improvement plans. 

Both Morse and Countryside Principal Beth Herlihy said the school’s classrooms are small to begin with, but the larger problem stems from the school being designed in the 1950s – it does not have space for modern education needs, like breakout space for students or areas for support staff. The library and gym are significantly smaller than state guidelines, Morse said.

But the biggest factor in the school getting state aid, Morse said, is its propensity for flooding. 

“One of the things that’s really striking is the school is built on wetlands, the flooding the school has experienced over time is pretty significant,” Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Ayesha Farag told the Beacon. “One can imagine the impact of the smell of sewage on children and their learning.”

‘[Sewage] pumps have failed numerous times, resulting in sewage flooding throughout the school,” reads the building’s existing conditions report. “The basement sits 6 feet below the water table and the boiler room sits 12 feet below the water table. When the pumps fail the basement floods within a few hours, which is catastrophic” for material stored there.

On a recent tour of the building, the basement was full of puddles after heavy rains the previous day. Morse said the building would have to be lifted off its foundation to be renovated, and that it needs constant pumping to keep the lowest part of the basement – which contains electrical equipment and boilers – from being totally flooded.

“Without pumps running 24/7, we’d be underwater right now,” Morse said.

Although the entire Countryside site is in a wetlands area, Morse said a new school without a basement could be built on the current parking lot area, which would be three feet higher than its current location – out of the flood plain, he said. And Morse said state law says the new building cannot have any flood impact outside of its property lines, and that it would have less impervious surface than the existing site.

Funding from the state

Newton officials asked the Massachusetts School Building Authority to help reimburse work at both the Countryside and Franklin schools, and while the MSBA rejected the request for Franklin it is working with Newton officials and a design committee to come up with possible plans for the building. 

The design committee is reviewing renovation options but Morse said renovating the school would require it to be lifted off its foundation, making a new school the most likely choice. Officials are expected to submit a project summary report – which would include the outcome of the debt exclusion – in April, Morse said.

The MSBA first put Countryside on track for potential reimbursement in 2021 and the project is in its “feasibility design phase,” where officials, architects and educators work on a proposal. The MSBA has not approved any set funding and will not vote on any plan until at least July of this year, but Morse said Newton would expect to receive 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost, based on previous MSBA reimbursements like the Angier project.

But that money would be contingent on Newton funding the rest of the project through borrowing money by issuing bonds, the way it pays for most large capital expenses. Fuller said the city can’t handle a project the size of the Countryside without a debt exclusion – an override to pay for a specific capital expense – and the MSBA requires cities requesting state money to declare how they will pay their own share.

“It’s like a middle school dance — until we’ve secured our funds it’s difficult for them to commit,” Morse said.

If the override fails, Newton officials would have to submit a plan explaining why the vote failed and discussing how they expect to find the money through some other way. The MSBA can extend its offer of funds but Morse said that was unlikely, and that Newton would have to start the process over again. An MSBA statement provided to the Beacon concurred.

“A failed local vote likely will result in the school district being required to submit a new Statement of Interest to the MSBA and await a second invitation from the MSBA to enter the feasibility study phase of the MSBA’s process,” the statement read.

Newton has gone through a similar process of funding school projects via debt exclusion and MSBA reimbursement with other buildings, like the Angier School. Farag said she thought residents who have benefited from other school construction, as well as those still waiting for work on buildings in their neighborhoods, would support tax increases for the Countryside and Franklin schools.

“People in other school communities who are waiting [for work on their schools] are eager for this to move forward because they know it’s a prioritized list. The sooner we move forward on these projects, other projects come on line and the sooner we have updated buildings for all kids in Newton,” Farag said.