NEW BEDFORD — The week before Thanksgiving, nightly temperatures were regularly dipping below 30 degrees in the city, but only two weeks prior the highs had been in the 70s. At Jireh Swift, the brick elementary school that has stood since 1909, the temperature swings exposed a small malfunction in the boiler system.

On that Tuesday, only one day before students would be released for the holiday, the school department’s official Twitter account announced that the boiler had given way. School was canceled for the next day.

The Tigers community — about 20 teachers and more than 200 elementary and pre-kindergarten students — needed a temporary home. For one week, they moved into a section of Normandin Middle School. 

“It was a really upbeat week,” said Andrew O’Leary, an assistant superintendent, who described how the schools came together for an extended “visit,” almost like a dual enrollment program. “But from my seat, it makes you think, ‘Why are we faced with this facility gap?’”

The New Bedford School District is nearly at full capacity with over 12,000 students in 25 schools, including the third-largest high school population in the state. But a once-in-a-lifetime windfall of COVID dollars has allowed for the planning and implementation of more than a dozen capital improvement projects — a total investment of tens of millions of dollars for new roofs, modular classrooms, entire buildings, and, yes, boilers. 

Yet, as New Bedford attempts to push these projects through (COVID funds have an expiration date of 2024, at the latest) the district is finding unexpected obstacles in its usual partnerships. This fall, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) indefinitely paused a program called the Accelerated Repair Program (ARP), which O’Leary estimated has made at least $40 million available to New Bedford for building renovations since 2012, when it was created.

And at its most recent meeting, in December, the MSBA board officially declined to move forward with New Bedford’s proposal to build a new school for the students at Swift Elementary.

The “Swift-Ashley” project, as local district officials call it, looks to put the Tigers in a new building, where they would be joined by students from Ashley Elementary, who now occupy a similarly tired, brick building — built in 1922, Ashley School reached its centennial last year. 

The Ashley School, built in 1922, reached its centennial last year. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Low-income communities with small tax bases have trouble raising money for big construction projects on their own, especially because they often shoulder greater needs for student support services, O’Leary said.

So for months, New Bedford was hoping the MSBA would partner with them on the Swift-Ashley proposal for a new school building. A document from a June 28 buildings committee meeting reads: “The Mayor, and Superintendent have called MSBA Senior officials to improve the chance of [the Swift-Ashley project] moving forward this year.”

Despite their efforts, the Swift-Ashley project was not one of the 10 moved along in the process.

O’Leary said he understands why the MSBA is looking to do “some belt tightening,” as construction costs have increased since the pandemic. Pausing the Accelerated Repair Program, which had focused on smaller-scale renovations, will help the independent state organization protect its core mission: build new schools and complete “major” projects.

Yet the MSBA’s decision to pause the repair program, coupled with its dwindling selection of core projects, has posed a significant challenge to cities across Massachusetts, and New Bedford in particular.

“Some districts are going to be looking to replace buildings from the ’80s and ’90s soon, and we’re still looking to replace buildings from before the 1920s,” O’Leary said. “These are legacies of underinvestment in Gateway Cities.” 

Eight schools in New Bedford are at least 100 years old, with an average age of 63 years; that means the average school is older than New Bedford’s 1966 hurricane barrier.

In addition, O’Leary said he believes that a positive, though perhaps unintended, benefit of the ARP renovation funds was a boon to school accessibility. 

He explained that after schools spend a certain amount of money, they become legally required to make accessibility updates, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Repairs for a roofing project, for example, could end up becoming so expensive that they require a school to pull in other projects, like building accessibility ramps. 

“By giving districts these ARP grants, the MSBA is essentially prompting districts to address … long-standing ADA issues. It’s a win for accessibility.”

Other Gateway Cities rely heavily on the accelerated funding too, which specifically targets repairs to roofs, windows, and boilers to extend the life of school buildings. 

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"We have heavily used the [accelerated repairs] program in the past and are disappointed that it's going away," said Patrick Roach, the chief financial and operations officer for Springfield Public Schools. "We have some very old buildings, and we can't replace them all at once."

Taking away this funding stream for targeted renovations means that Springfield schools will have to narrow their renovation plans. "The city of Springfield will have to cancel other projects they had planned,” Roach confirmed, saying Springfield alone had 20 other projects this decision will affect. 

These district officials in Gateway Cities see the accelerated repair funds as a high-leverage way to service their aging schools and high-needs students while gathering resources for larger renovations. O’Leary said he thinks the MSBA sees these funds as fat to trim: “They don’t see it the way we see it.”

At the November meeting of the New Bedford School Committee, Mayor Jon Mitchell seemed alarmed by the news that this funding was going away. “That concerns me,” he said in response to a presentation from O’Leary.

Coming out of that meeting, the mayor said he planned to "rally some of the other mayors of larger cities around the state,” and according to a spokesperson brought up the issue in an early December meeting. 

School finance and construction work doesn't always grab headlines, but it has profound effects on student learning and the economic vitality of a community. Attending school in a new building has been shown to increase test scores and boost attendance; to inspire teachers to work harder; and to boost nearby real estate prices by more than the cost of construction. 

In other words, it’s an investment with a far-reaching ripple effect.

But an audit from September found that the MSBA does not have a clearly documented process to ensure that its various methods for evaluating potential projects were completed “in a consistent manner and that school districts with the most urgent need are given priority.”

Though it contested some of the audit’s characterizations, the MSBA agreed to amend its processes. 

The Jireh Swift School, in New Bedford's North End, was the site of a boiler malfunction just before Thanksgiving. Students were relocated out of the building for one week. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

At the December meeting, the MSBA voted to raise their reimbursement rate per square foot for major construction projects, something O’Leary and Roach said was necessary. 

In addition, the transition to the new Healey administration could be an opportunity to address the MSBA’s ability to evaluate, select, and partner with school districts. But O’Leary wasn’t holding his breath: “The wheels turn slowly,” he said. 

Meanwhile, New Bedford hopes to find the best use for its coronavirus relief funds, including the ESSER III grant — the third and largest installment — that recently made $43 million available. The district has said it intends to spend this money to update the aging school buildings and fund new capital projects.

Already New Bedford spends about 60% of all tax dollars on the school department. Almost 10% of that money goes toward cleaning and maintaining their aging building stock.

“Schools are the single largest investment our city makes,” O’Leary has said. 

But without new partnerships with the MSBA, including their targeted accelerated repair funds, New Bedford will be one of many Gateway Cities with projects waiting in its queue.

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1 Comment

  1. Has anyone asked if other projects, new school construction, have been approved in the last 6 months? If funding was provided then to which communities, then, make a comparison of the schools being repaired or replaced to the schools of New Bedford. All this is public record and should have been looked into and provided in this report. I understand how the MSBA operates.

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