Friday, November 10, 2006
Details emerge in new MSBA process for school construction
How will the state divide $500 million per year among over 60 schools judged "in need of substantial work?" Last week Carlisle School Business Manager Heidi Zimmerman and members of the Carlisle School Building Committee attended a symposium concerning the new Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) funding process. MSBA Executive Director Katherine Craven gave a presentation titled, "Updates, new regulations and next steps," for school building projects to be eligible for state aid. Not all the details have been explained, but one change was made clear — the MSBA wants greater involvement in every step of the school building process.
As more control shifts toward the state, voters may be given less time to review designs before being asked to authorize construction spending. In the past, towns voted incrementally — first authorizing feasibility studies, then designs, and finally construction. New MSBA regulations may compress the design and build phases to a single vote, to be held within 120 days of MSBA reimbursement approval.
The new project base reimbursement rate of 31% will be modified depending on a community's property values, with incentives provided for green design, renovation vs. new construction, innovative community use, and private fundraising.
Process starts with a Statement of Interest (SOI)
The Statement of Interest is the document which describes the facilities problem and initially engages the MSBA. Both the Carlisle School Building Committee (SBC) and the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) are preparing Statements of Interest to describe desired school expansion projects.
The deadline for submission is July 31, 2007, although the MSBA is beginning to read them now. According www.massschoolbuildings.org, the MSBA website, by November 6 they had received 104 SOI from 59 school districts.
Needs must be documented
This Statement of Interest should include the deficiencies in the existing school facility, and how those deficiencies fit the priorities the state has laid down for funding. The MSBA has created a list of Statutory Criteria for project justification:
· Health and safety.
· Existing severe overcrowding
· Loss of accreditation
· Prevent future severe overcrowding
·Increase energy conservation and decrease energy costs
· Short-term enrollment growth
· Replace obsolete building
· Transition from court ordered racial balance district to walk-to districts
Upon reviewing the Statement of Interest, the MSBA will decide whether to ask for more information from the school system. The MSBA will verify enrollment and the condition of the school building. School buildings are anticipated to be useful for 50 years. No designs or local votes are required by MSBA until they have given approval.
Based on the Needs Survey done by the MSBA last year, 62 of the Commonwealth's 1,817 schools rated poor, or "in need of substantial work." These include the Carlisle School's Spaulding Building as well as the Concord Carlisle High School.
Once the Statement of Interest and due diligence are complete, the next step is for the MSBA to invite the community to submit an application for aid. The community has to develop an Educational Goals Plan for the needed project and an Operating Budget Review.
Towns and MSBA together decide on solution
All alternatives to building a new school, including renovations, rentals, etc. must be considered. Then the community and the MSBA are to meet for a Pre-Study Review Conference, and initiate a Feasibility Study. According to Zimmerman, it is unclear whether the Master Plan developed for the Carlisle School or the high school's Feasibility Study completed last year will suffice for this purpose or whether another feasibility study must be done. She also noted that the application process is still evolving, and may change as the first schools are approved and actual project administration begins.
Towns have 120 days to decide after MSBA approval
If the MSBA gives the go-ahead for a project, the local community will have four months to get financial commitment from its citizens to secure the MSBA reimbursement. Towns that are unable to do this will lose their approved status and those funds will be given to another project. If the town approves the project, the minimum reimbursement rate will be allocated to the town at this time by the MSBA.
The time limit is spelled out in the MSBA Regulations 963 CMR,dated September 22, under section 2.10 (10) Application and Approval Procedures, Project Scope and Budget Agreement. It states that "During said 120 calendar day period, the eligible applicant shall acquire and certify local approval for an appropriation and all other necessary local votes or approvals showing acceptance of the cost, site, type and scope, and timeline for the proposed project."
In an e-mail to parents titled "[Regional] School Committee News" RSC member Betsy Bilodeau writes that "Once the state notifies the region that reimbursement funding is avialable, the region has 120 days to bring the project before voters in the two towns." Contacted later, Bilodeau noted that an earlier draft of the regulations had contained a 90-day time limit, but that school district representatives had protested during meetings with the MSBA over the summer.
At the symposium, the new process was outlined in broad brushstrokes:
· Identify and validate the problem. The local community identifies deficiencies in their school facilities by submitting a Statement of Interest to the MSBA. The MSBA and the town validate the problem.
· Evaluation of potential solutions. A pre-design planning process will include educational goals, a budget review and a Pre-Study Review conference with the town and the MSBA.
· Confirm the solution. The MSBA and the town agree on an appropriate course of action. The project scope, cost and timeline will be agreed upon between the MSBA and the town.
·Implement the solution. The MSBA and the town continue to collaborate through design and construction.
Changes follow state program reorganization
The MSBA, an independent public Authority, was created by the Massachusetts legislature in 2004 to replace the School Building Assistance (SBA) program run by the Department of Education. According to Craven,under the old system the backlog in aid commitments had grown to over $5 billion. Grant payments typically began over 10 years after a school construction project was completed, and payments were spread over a 20 year period. Under the new "pay as you build"arrangement, MSBA will provide much faster reimbursement to towns.
According to the MSBA, one benefit of the new regulations will be a strong emphasis on pre-design planning. The relationship between the MSBA and the municipality will be documented in a written agreement, which will add to the predictability of the state's and the town's financial commitments.
Goals of the new MSBA regulations include thorough oversight, revized project sizing and cost standards; and quicker payments to better match MSBA funding with project cash flow. Craven hopes these goals can be reached while adhering to MSBA's statutory cap for school construction grants.
MSBA funding for new projects is derived from a portion of the state sales tax revenue. Initially capped at $500 million per year, the MSBA share of the sales tax will be allowed to grow in the coming years.
MSBA looks at project details
The MSBA seeks a greater involvement in the details of project management. There will be a suspension of payments for failure to submit required information. It wants a say on who sits on the building committee, and recommends the group include architects, planners, engineers, educators and townspeople. The MSBA encourages towns to have an authorized central decision making person at the town level.
There will be a new emphasis on maintenance, and the MSBA plans to provide a Maintenance Trust Fund that will match funds from eligible communities.
Applicants are to request MSBA approval of the Owner Project Manager (OPM), the person or firm identified to coordinate and manage the project. The OPM will be the advisor and representative for the town.
The MSBA workshop presentation concluded, "The process of building a school is not longer or shorter because of new regulations, the Authority is just involved earlier." Time will tell.
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