Council Approves Borrowing $198 Million for State of the Art, Green Watertown High School

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Ai3 Archtiects A rendering of what the new Watertown High School will look like (note the colors have not been settled). The City Council approved borrowing $198 million to construct the new school.

School and City officials hailed the City Council’s approval of funding to build the new Watertown High School as an important step not just for the students of Watertown, but the community as a whole.

Tuesday night’s approval of the borrowing of $198.8 million opens the way for the final planning and construction of a state-of-the-art, and energy efficient building to be constructed on the site of the current school. The figure covers the cost of construction, plus the creation of temporary swing space at Moxley Field. The state will reimburse the City for $44.2 million of the cost.

Before the vote, School Committee Chair Kendra Foley said the Council has a huge opportunity in front of them.

“With your support tonight and in partnership with the state, we have an amazing opportunity to take our nearly 100-year-old high school and build a truly innovative learning experience for our students,” Foley said. “This project will truly be transformative for thousands of our community members and for our community as a whole.”

Assistant Superintendent Theresa McGuinness said the new building will have a positive impact on Watertown’s students, and be a community asset. She attended the meeting because Superintendent Dede Galdston had a family commitment.

“What together we are accomplishing for Watertown’s children and adolescents for generations to come is remarkable, and we will have a lasting impact on their educational outcome and their career choices after that,” McGuinness said. “Not only will the new high schools inspire children to explore and the worlds around them, but it will become a center for our community for fitness, entertainment and general enjoyment, or as one of our high school students coined it: 24/7 Watertown.”

The new school will have 200,032 sq. ft. of space (not including the lower level parking garage which will have 136 spaces). It will have three stories above street level on Columbia Street and four stories from Common Street, said Christy Murphy, from the district’s project management firm, Compass.

The school will include the current academic programs, plus facilities for Career Technical Education programs, including Engineering Technology, Medical Assisting, and Early Childhood Education. There will be a fab lab maker space, and multiple outdoor recreation and learning areas.

Facilities include a 487-seat auditorium, plus a black box theater with 99 seats. The gymnasium will have space for two full regulation basketball courts, and will have seating for up to 935 people. A walking track will be built a story above the court.

The building will be Net Zero Energy design, which means it produces as much energy as it will use. It will and will achieve LEED Platinum level, a measure of the building’s energy efficiency and sustainability. The school will have geothermal wells, photovoltaic panels with battery storage, triple glazing, and more.

Many Years in the Making

The vote has been a long time in the making. The current process began in December 2017 when Watertown was invited to take part in the Massachusetts School Building Authority program for the high school.

The School Building Committee began meeting in March 2018, and has had dozens of meetings and nine community forums. The process did not end up being a linear one, noted City Council President Mark Sideris.

“This was a very arduous process to get to this point. The MSBA kind of rejected our first cut at this, which was two buildings with a bridge,” Sideris said. “A lot of people loved that idea, but the MSBA said no we don’t want to do that. So, we had to hit the reset button. It cost us another year of … a little bit of a delay, but we are getting there.” 

Watertown did not get accepted into the MSBA program right away, said Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli.

“In 2014, we submitted our first application to the Mass. School Building Authority. It was rejected,” Piccirilli said. “In 2015 it was rejected, in 2016 it was rejected, in 2017 finally, in December it was accepted into the MSBA program.”

There have also been previous efforts to build a new high school, said resident Jimmy Mello.

“This is a long time coming. The last time this community voted for a new high school was back in the ’70s in Town Meeting,” Mello said. “This is the first time in 50 years that this town is about to vote for a well long overdue new high school.”

A Large Figure

The figure represents the largest single loan order ever borrowed by Watertown, said acting Town Manager Tom Tracy.

Deciding to borrow $198 million really hit home on the night of the vote, said Councilor Caroline Bays.

“I do feel the full weight of that on my shoulders, but I am proud to do it on behalf of this town,” Bays said.  

Murphy provided the following budget figures:

SUMMARY BUDGET INFORMATION

Administration of Project: $4,733,849

Architectural/Engineering: $13,834,050

Construction: $138,651,235

Misc. Project Costs (including Swing Spaces): $28,742,164

Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment: $3,456,000

Contingency: $9,426,954

Total Project Budget (excluding feasibility study) $198,844,252

Watertown qualified for a 45.52 percent reimbursement rate, and added 2 percent in incentives for energy efficiency and 1.81 percent for the maintenance program, for a total reimbursement of 49.33 percent. The reimbursement only covers “eligible” items. The MSBA only covers certain sizes for facilities such as the gym and auditorium, but Watertown chose to go with larger ones. The MSBA also does not reimburse for swing space. The cost of the additional space was covered entirely by the City.

Unlike other MSBA projects, the Watertown did not have to make a vote to approve a temporary tax increase to cover the City’s cost of the project.

“In the last preliminary budget overview, (recently retired Town Manager) Mr. (Michael) Driscoll came up with a plan to do this high school without a debt exclusion vote,” Piccirilli said. “The City of Watertown and the future students who attend this school will be forever grateful to him for pulling off that feat.”

That move was part of what Sideris called the team effort that made the high school project possible.

“It starts with the taxpayers who paid all the bills, helped us pay down retirement obligation, helping us pay down our OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) obligation, and we had the financial wherewithal to have a manager to guide us to get us to this point,” Sideris said. “But we, the Council, also sometimes had to hold the line. When we had things people were looking for money for, we held the line. This is what comes out of good financial management.”

Along with Driscoll, Sideris thanked the taxpayers, the City Council, Ai3 Architects, Compass, Superintendent Dede Galdston, McGuinness, the schools’ Director of Finance and Operations Heidi Perkins, WHS Principal Joel Giacobozzi, and the parents, many of whom participated in community forums.

He added that Watertown has also built two new elementary schools and will renovate and expand a third.

“Watertown is at the forefront of how you can do four schools with no override, financial manage, financial stab with all the good economic development this Council and other Councils have encouraged,” Sideris said. “I think it is important to say, we’re borrowing staggering amounts of money, but the MSBA is participating and is very happy with where we ended up, and the community is going to be a better place for this for many years to come.”

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