Some suggestions to solve the Newton North High School problem

Image of NNHS from Lowell Street, photo from Greater Boston TVI knew it was going to come up sooner or later. A proposal to once again raise taxes to pay for Newton schools. Or, in this case, one school.

Newton North.

Page 1 of the June 7, 2006 Newton Tab has the story. The increase has been proposed by a group of aldermen, who are worried that the current city plan to pay for North will result in other essential services being shortchanged. Buried in the text is the estimated cost for a 20-year, $150 million debt exclusion: It "would raise the average resident's yearly taxes by about $240." The article continues, "The overall tax increase over 20 years would be about $4,800."

Borderline is not surprised. I predicted this type of scenario in an earlier post. Now I am going to offer some real ideas about how to deal with this mess.

Borderline's first suggestion: put off reconstruction on any new high school for five to ten years.

There are several reasons for this. As noted in page 23 of the May 31 Tab, "the average life of a municipal building is about 50 years," but North is still in its 30s.

It's not just the standard shelf life. It's the fact that the NNHS building is not in dire straits, as some would like us to believe. I don't deny that the building is a little rough around the edges, and some rooms are dark, or don't get ventilated that well. But the school is not about to fall down. And Borderline disputes the Tab's May 31 claim that "people have been complaining about North" for every year it's been in existence. I attended the school for four years, and aside from rumors of asbestos in the auditorium fire curtain, damage to the walls of the Little Theater, the pool supposedly being six inches too short, and the undeniable angular ugliness of the building, I didn't hear students, teachers, officials, or parents complaining about Newton North's physical integrity. No one ever said the building was seriously flawed and needed to be torn down.

I have been in the building in recent years -- I visited the campus when Mrs. Borderline was taking night classes through the Newton Community Education program -- and it looked almost the same as it did 20 years ago. There was no damage in Main Street, the corridors, or in the classrooms I saw. Outside, the only damage I have seen in the past few years are some of the exterior bricks facing Lowell Street are crumbling. And I suspect these bricks may have been allowed to deterioriate on purpose, in order to give members of the public driving by the idea that the building is dilapidated.

Another reason to put off reconstruction: In five years we will have a better idea of Newton's demographic trends. I am not convinced Newton will need two giant high schools, because, frankly, this town is too expensive for most young families to live in, and people are having fewer kids. I am sure that the city has a good idea of high school enrollment 10 years down the road, based on the current crop of 1st and 2nd graders in Newton's elementary schools. But what about 15 years from now? Or 20 years from now? Are there really going to be enough kids to fill a brand new Newton North and the existing Newton South?

This brings up Borderline's second suggestion: It's time to give up the idea of two separate high schools in Newton, and return to a city with just one high school.

Having two high schools made sense in the 1960s when the baby boom unleashed a tidal wave of kids on the school system, and there was the need for a dedicated vocational program in one of the high schools. But it doesn't make sense anymore. Besides demographic trends, and the decline of the Tech-Voc program, the costs associated with maintaining two quality high school campuses and academic programs are just too much. Returning to a single high school would eliminate redundancy and reduce costs. Citizens and officials wouldn't be arguing every two years about overrides, cancellation of important academic programs, cuts in essential city services, or illegally dipping into the CPA fund to pay for questionable school improvements.

I am sure there are people who think Borderline is crazy. But consider the crazy situation Newton is in right now before you dismiss my ideas. An estimated $165 million for the new Newton North? A seemingly never-ending series of overrides and budget shell games? The constant spectre of public employees being laid off, and cuts to services and programs?

And what will happen when it's time to rebuild Newton South High School? No one's talking about it now, but they probably will be in ten years. Where's the money for that going to come from?

Newton had one high school before and the kids did fine. It's time to reconsider returning to that model for Newton's schools, and putting an end to the fear, uncertainty and doubt that will continue to plague the city if it rushes into building an expensive new Newton North.

Related Borderline Blog commentary:

Why I won't be moving to Newton anytime soon

Why No Newton North Alumni Association, or Alumni Fund?


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