10.05.2006

Whittemore budget problems, and a warning for Newton

I was worried about the slow pace of the Whittemore Elementary School rebuilding project before, but after reading "Price won't deter Waltham from finishing school project" in Globe West, I'm even more worried now.

At first glance, the article doesn't seem unusual, or cause for worry -- typical Boston Globe fare, actually. The writer, Denise Dubé, quotes lots of officials, who sound determined and play down potential problems. Not once are ordinary people interviewed. (See "Sloppy reporting on Waltham development" and "Blackout, part II. Media misses the story at first, then gets it wrong" for other examples of the Globe's bias towards officials and company spokespeople)

But read between the lines. What worries Borderline about this article are some developments about the Whittemore rebuilding project that spell major problems for Waltham families and taxpayers.

Here's major development No. 1:
"Despite $25 million in cost overruns, Waltham officials say they will not scale back plans for rebuilding the James Fitzgerald and Henry Whittemore elementary schools."
Here's major development No. 2:
"The mayor has said the schools come first," [City Auditor Dennis] Quinn said of the loan. "I don't believe there will be a major impact on the taxpayer over the next decades because of the school building program."
And here's major development No. 3:
"Whittemore will be renovated and expanded, with bid solicitations due to go out this month."
$25 million in cost overruns? Let's put this number in perspective: It's nearly half of Waltham's "education budget for FY 2006. Moreover, $25 million is not even a final figure, because building hasn't started on these two schools -- it may very well go over budget.

And there will be no "major impact" on the taxpayer? $25 million short, and we need to find the money somewhere, and there's no major impact? What are you smoking? These types of comments are just the type of worthless B.S. that anti-tax fanatics love to turn into a major issue around election time.

Waltham will not scale back plans? Not only is that ridiculous, it is flatly contradicted by an official statement at the end of the article that says the city is trying to identify cheaper building materials to use.

And to top it off, no bids have gone to actually start work on the Whittemore renovation. Borderline thought something was odd back in August when no work was going on, but now it turns out that we don't even know who is going to do the work, or when they will start?

Whittemore parents have already put up with a lot. The teachers and classmates are all the same, but the kids have to go to a different, temporary school. It's far away, on Moody Street -- one of Waltham's busiest roads. There's no playground at the temporary school, and the crowded gymnasium is dominated by the older kids during breaks. Now we find out that we don't have the money in hand to rebuild Whittemore, and bids haven't even gone out!

Borderline has to ask: Is the planned 2008 reopening realistic with so many uncertainties?

And, why didn't any of our elected and appointed officials see this coming? If they did, why didn't they tell us parents about these problems at the community meetings in 2005 and earlier this year?

There's a Whittemore parents meeting coming up (tomorrow, I believe) to talk about some of these issues, but Borderline can't attend. I am not sure I can trust the local press to tell us what's going on with Whittemore -- apparently all they are capable of doing is reporting happy talk and hot air from officials. Therefore, can someone leave comments on this blog post, or email Borderline to tell us what happened?

Oh, and I almost forgot the warning for Newton. Check out this item from the Boston Globe article about the Whittemore/Fitzgerald budget problems:
Officials blamed escalating costs of steel, concrete, copper, and asphalt for boosting the total cost of the school reconstruction project from $165 million to more than $190 million.
Does a $165 million estimate sound familiar?

It should.

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