NEW BEDFORD — There's a renewed effort to replace two of New Bedford's century-old school buildings, as the City Council and Mayor Jon Mitchell are giving their support to the School Committee's newest request for state aid to replace the Swift and Ashley Elementary schools.

The proposal will be the most recent attempt to replace Swift (opened in 1909) and Ashley (in 1922) with a new building that will house students from both schools —  together known as the “Swift-Ashley” project — after the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) did not advance New Bedford's previous bid among the 10 proposals it selected in a December meeting. 


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Mitchell has advocated heavily for this project, including by promising to make personal calls in support of last year's bid, and by issuing a news release to bring attention to its resubmission.

“We have made the modernization of New Bedford school facilities a high priority,” Mitchell stated. “We want to make sure future generations of students have a school that meets their needs.”

State aid or other external funding is necessary for New Bedford — and many Gateway Cities — to take on large-scale building projects, such as constructing new schools, officials have said. A partnership with the MSBA, an independent state agency formed in 2012, can reduce costs by up to 80%, and this partnership was instrumental in the opening of the new Taylor School, in 2017, and in the current work to replace DeValles and Congdon Elementaries.

Schools superintendent Thomas Anderson said that MSBA support for the Swift-Ashley proposal “is part of our master plan to replace all the century-old buildings,” of which there are currently eight across New Bedford.

Overall, 15 school buildings were built in 1977 or earlier, in which over 8,000 students are currently enrolled, a number that on its own would be among the dozen largest districts in the state.

These very old schools contribute to an average building age of 64 years. 

New Bedford Public Schools are in a stable financial position, including with the recent news that Gov. Maura Healey intends to fully fund the Student Opportunity Act (SOA), the law that updated education funding formulas to provide more resources for low-income districts like New Bedford.

"The Student Opportunity Act is paying off," said Andrew O'Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations, at last month’s School Committee finance subcommittee meeting. But O’Leary said the increases are what New Bedford needs for operational expenses, and are not providing anything beyond that.

Even though New Bedford's local school budget could increase by almost 10% this year, early projections show, O'Leary says this money "fixes'' previous underinvestment. "It's what's owed," he said, for New Bedford to be able to properly address Special Education needs, the rising cost of employees' health care, and small-scale building improvements, like repainting sections of the high school.

On its own, New Bedford does not have enough available money to build new schools, which can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Neither could coronavirus funds completely cover these costs. Across three installments, New Bedford will receive more than $70 million in federal aid related to the pandemic. These funds have been put to broad use, including ventilation and ductwork improvements, new fire alarm systems, planning and building a School-Based Health Center, and expanding prekindergarten offerings, among many other projects.

In comparison, the new Keith Middle School came with a price tag of $70 million alone, in 2007, nominally almost equal to all COVID funds, though complications from the contaminated site that Keith was built on did nearly double the cost. The new Taylor School, which is actually a large addition onto the Sea Lab building, cost $12.5 million.

Meanwhile construction costs have been skyrocketing, putting MSBA in a pinch as it struggles to stay under its funding cap, MSBA leaders have said. That's what led James MacDonald, chief executive officer of MSBA, to lament in a March 1 meeting, "It has been a tough period, and will continue to be tough as we continue to fill positions."

Minutes from the December meeting of MSBA's board of directors, when the Swift-Ashley project failed to advance, noted that there were more than 54 proposals last year, and only 10 were advanced in the process. These included projects at Brockton High, Salem High School, Franklin County Regional Vocational Technical school, and others.

In the March 1 meeting, the MSBA said it had either met or conducted site visits with 21 more projects, including with city or school officials in Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lawrence, and Braintree.

New Bedford was not listed, nor was the Whaling City included on the list of planned site visits for March and April.

Though the need for building projects is urgent in New Bedford, school officials say, it will be another competitive application cycle as many more cities seek funding than MSBA can accommodate.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@petarenapro.com


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