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I-Team: Is the process to build new schools in Massachusetts fair?

I-Team: School construction inequities in Massachusetts
I-Team: School construction inequities in Massachusetts 04:49

BOSTON - In the affluent suburb of Westwood, its new state-of-the-art elementary school is under construction. The cost to build it is nearly $88 million. Amanda Hanna tells the I-Team, "I teach in a brand-new building now, and I have seen personally the difference that it makes for students." 

But Hanna's own children are not in a new school. Her two boys were students at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School in Somerville. In May, a piece of concrete fell from a ceiling stairwell that kids use. The city deemed the building unsafe and closed it before the end of the academic year, displacing hundreds of students. Hanna says, "It's pretty scary to think about my kids being in a building that might really put them in danger." 

Deans at the school say they have been sounding the alarm about the problems for years. Brandon Buckland, a dean of students, says, "This is a failure of adults and of leadership to foresee a crisis that was being warned about." 

Some parents say it comes down to lack of equity in addressing the concerns. Uma Murugan, the president of the PTA, states, "most of us are immigrants, a lot of us don't have political capacity at all or voices." 

To add insult to injury, Somerville decided to move the Winter Hill students to an even older school, the Edgerly, a so-called "swing school." 

Westwood school construction
Elementary school under construction in Westwood CBS Boston

But before the kids could even get inside the Edgerly, workers found asbestos. The abatement process nearly derailed the plan and raised questions about fairness. "I think kids can learn because kids will learn from the community, not from the building, but that said, I think kids deserve better than another old building that is almost falling apart," Murugan said. 

There are more than 1800 schools in the Commonwealth. Many of those in poor districts are old and in disrepair. 

Communities that want to build new facilities can apply to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for aid. The quasi-state agency is funded by one percent of the state's sales tax. 

The agency decides how much it will reimburse a district for construction using a sliding scale formula that looks at community income, property values, and poverty. Cities and towns then have to come up with the rest of the money.

Senator Jason Lewis, who chairs the Education Committee, expressed a need for more state help. Lewis has filed a bill to create a commission to inventory how many schools need fixing and make recommendations on how to get MSBA more funding. He says that the cost of renovating and constructing schools has increased dramatically in recent years, and the MSBA's reimbursement rate hasn't kept up. This disadvantages less wealthy communities. 

Edgerly Education Center Somerville
Construction underway at Edgerly Education Center in Somerville after asbestos was discovered  CBS Boston

MSBA projects are greenlit largely based on urgency and need and do not specifically consider race. However, MSBA data from 2007 to 2022, as analyzed by the I-Team, shows that districts with more than 50% White students received more money for big projects, over $10,000 per student, compared to less than $6,800 per student in majority-minority communities. 

Amanda Hanna says all kids need a good learning environment that's not hot, cramped, falling apart, and unsafe. 

In Somerville, the city recently got a new high school and is on the hook to pay 25% of the estimated $256 million cost. The city has applied to the MSBA for funding to build a new Winter Hill school but would likely need voter approval for another tax increase.

Uma Murugan says in marginalized communities many immigrants don't vote or participate in the process, leaving those families who need new schools the most unable to have their voices heard. 

Statement from the MSBA: 

"The MSBA has always operated equitably, by utilizing all available resources to make a difference in the lives of students across Massachusetts. Since 2007, over $7.8 billion dollars of grants have been approved and currently there are over 300 school projects in progress across the Commonwealth. On a yearly basis, the MSBA reviews statements of interests filed by districts and completes an exhaustive due diligence process with a focus on need and urgency as outlined in our statute. The MSBA remains committed to continuing to use our resources to extend our reach and improve the educational environment for all communities." 

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