State school building authority boosts reimbursement to towns

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-04-2023 8:47 PM

AMHERST — Communities across Massachusetts, including Amherst, will get more financial support from the state for school building projects they are pursuing, although a reimbursement increase recently approved by state officials fell short of appeals made by the local legislative delegation.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority on Dec. 20 approved an increase in reimbursements to $393 per square foot, up from the $360 per square foot reimbursement rate that was set in June 2021.

The increase will mean more state money for the three-story, 100,000-square-foot, 575-student school being planned for the Fort River School site on South East Street. That K-5 building, which will accommodate students from the aging and outdated Wildwood and Fort River schools, will be subject to a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override vote in May.

Even with the higher reimbursement rate, though, it will be less than half of the estimated $800 per square foot cost that Finance Director Sean Mangano presented to town officials over the summer. At that time, he said the state might cover 3o% to 40% of the costs, with the town to pick up $70 million of the not-to-exceed $100 million price tag.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said the increased reimbursement is a positive for Amherst and other cities and towns embarking on similar projects.

“Although I would have liked a larger increase in the reimbursement, this is a great first step,” Domb said. “I appreciate that the MSBA took on the responsibility to reinstitute an increase in reimbursement, one which better reflects real-time economic pressures.

“We will continue to advocate for more investment in our communities and another increase, as our towns advance with necessary and important municipal construction projects,” Domb added.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the higher reimbursement rate is appreciated by the town and that a more precise total cost, and the town’s share, will be obtained soon.

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“It’s good news, but not as good news as we’d hoped,” Bockelman said.

Mangano said he was planning to meet with the owners project manager for the school project and to have a more clear financial picture in January.

The MSBA’s increase comes after Domb and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, submitted a letter to Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy in October asking for a more realistic reflection of the current construction market, with their request to set the reimbursement at $478 per square foot and meaning Amherst would get about $9 million more from the state.

“We are concerned that COVID-19 related increased construction costs, coupled with an MSBA construction cap that has not been increased since July 2021, may conspire to undermine current projects, including the one in the town of Amherst which we represent,” they wrote.

Even had that rate adjustment been accepted by the MSBA, though, the legislators note that it still would have been $194 per square foot below the current average of new construction costs.

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