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I-TEAM: Local schools are crumbling, and there’s little being done to stop it

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From stained ceilings, to aging boilers, to extreme temperature swings, schools are deteriorating across the state, and there’s not much districts can do to stop it.

The 22News I-Team wanted to know why some towns get brand new schools, while others can’t even get repairs. We asked you which schools are in the worst condition, then brought our cameras inside to see for ourselves.

Our first stop was the Abner Gibbs Elementary School in Westfield; a school that’s 105-years-old. The first thing we noticed was there’s no real parking lot. Instead, staff members are forced to line up their cars on the side of the building.

Then, there’s the issue of handicap accessibility. Students with physical disabilities can’t go to Abner Gibbs, because they don’t have wheelchair ramps. 

Just last year, they had to replace the school’s roof due to leaks in the classrooms.

Westfield Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Ronald Rix told the I-Team, the school also has small classrooms, one shared space for a cafeteria, gym and auditorium, and a century old heating system. “It’s just costing us an awful amount of money for the maintence of it. As we mentioned when were downstairs, we’ve spent a lot of time maintainening them, so we have two boilers in case one of them goes down.”

Rix said if one of the boilers goes down, it can cause serious issues. “Worst thing we can do is have a freeze-up or start a day with no heat, because state law requires us to be at about 68-degrees. We’ve had situations where the heat has been down and we’ve had our staff come in to get that up so we can open on time, so that’s a critical operational function that we require.”

Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said they’ve also invested a lot of money into new technology, including mobile laptop carts and high speed WiFi, to make sure students can still get a 21st Century learning experience, in a 19th Century environment.

A similar effort is underway in East Longmeadow, where the high school has been around since 1960.

The 22News I-Team spoke with Gordon Smith, the Superintendent of East Longmeadow Public Schools, and asked him which repairs are most in need at the high school. He replied: “You have electrical system that was originally designed to handle a 1960 building.”

Smith told the I-Team the system is so old, the town’s electrical inspector has warned about the potential for a complete shutdown; something he noted in their most recent application for a state grant.
“Fixing this electrical system with a complete shutdown would take time. we would look at somewhere between a two and four-week closure, and that’s just an estimate,” he said.

The school also has a flat roof full of sky lights, which makes leaks inevitable when it rains heavily; something that just happened earlier this year. Their other issues include decaying and melted electrical wires, and asbestos tiles that are original to the building.

Superintendent Smith noted in his most recent report to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, that the tiles “present a possible health hazard as they continue to decay over the 58 years that the building has been in operation.”

Similar to Westfield, East Longmeadow has also spent a lot of money investing in new technology, including mobile laptop carts, 3D printers, and moveable furniture, that helps provide students with a 21st Century learning experience.

However, Smith said getting around the school’s aging electrical system can be a challenge. “In this day and age where you’re introducing all kinds of different electronics and technology, we have gone to the maximum capacity of the electric system. I think we’re doing some really creative things in meeting that challenge and putting our students in the best instructional situation, but we always have to figure as we introduce technology- how are we going to take load off the electrical system somewhere else?”

The I-Team wanted to know why these schools aren’t getting the funding they desperately need, so we started researching the Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA.

The MSBA is a quasi-independent government agency, that was created by the Legislature and former State Treasurer Tim Cahill. The organization determines which schools receive funds for capital improvement projects.

The MSBA is in charge of the CORE program; a competitive grant program to rebuild and rehabiliate schools in Massachusetts.

East Longmeadow High School has been trying to get into the CORE program for years now, but they keep getting denied. In fact, they were just denied for the fifth year in a row.

The MSBA told the I-Team, the Abner Gibbs School was invited into the CORE program in 2009. The project was voted out of the program in spring of 2018 at the behest of the district, due to mitigating factors surrounding an abutters lawsuit and changes in enrollment. 

The I-Team spoke to James MacDonald, the CEO of the MSBA, to see how they make their decisions, and why so many schools in western Massachusetts are falling apart.

(Do you think we’re paying enough attention to the schools in western Massachusetts?)

“I do. You know, we’re looking at what’s the most needy, regardless of where they are.”

MacDonald told the I-Team, a lot of time and research goes into the process of choosing which schools get into the program. “Once a year, we open up CORE for accelerated repairs or actual replacement of schools. Districts have months to put the presentation together, submit it to the MSBA, who will then review, sort of make a decision as who’s a ‘repeat offender,’ meaning who has been here many times before. Did something new happen? Do we have to do site visits?”

He told the I-Team, they then choose which districts will get an on-site visit with a consultant. Once that part of the evaluation is done, recommendations are made to the board of the MSBA.

According to numbers the I-Team obtained from the MSBA, 130 districts applied for grant money through the MSBA last year.

70 of those schools applied for the CORE Program, including 27 from western Massachusetts.

Only 12 schools got in, and out of those 12, only one of them is located in western Massachusetts. The other 11 are in the eastern part of the state.

Who gets accepted is a decision made by the MSBA’s seven-member board; none of whom are from the western part of the state.

(The MSBA doesn’t have any board members from western Massachusetts… why is our part of the state not represented at all?)

“You know, the statute from the Legislature puts forth what the members of our board are. I think it’s probably a matter of we need a representative from the Dept. of Elementary Education, we have an architect. I am confident that the process we have is open and transparant and fair,” MacDonald said.

The I-Team looked up the statute for ourselves:

“The authority shall consist of the State Treasurer, who shall serve as chairperson, the Secretary of Administration and Finance, the Commissioner of Education, and four additional members appointed by the State Treasurer, two of whom shall have practical experience in educational facilities planning, school building construction, or architecture and school design, and two of whom shall be persons in the field of education with demonstrated knowledge of Massachusetts curriculum frameworks and other relevant federal and state educational standards.”

In other words, the State Treasurer can choose four members from anywhere in Massachusetts, as long as they meet the necessary standards. Yet, not one person from western Massachusetts sits on the board that ultimately decides which schools get the necessary funding.

MacDonald told the I-Team, they don’t base their decision on location, they base it on urgency. “It’s all a matter of what the district that is applying sees for themselves. I get that people are passionate, and we understand the passion that districts have. When we look at the schools, we listen, but we’re looking at the entire state. We understand and appreciate the needs of the distircts, but there’s only so much money to go around.”

He also said the MSBA has devoted a lot of money to repairing schools in western Massachusetts, and has given various types of grants to about 50 schools in the area in recent years, including five in Holyoke and four in Chicopee.

To put that into perspective, there are more than 320 schools across the state.

The MSBA does face their own financial challenges. The CORE Program is funded by the state sales tax, but it’s also capped at $600-million dollars; something they’re hoping to change.

Unless that cap is lifted, the MSBA has no choice but to continue picking and choosing which schools get the necessary repairs.

CLICK HERE to see which schools applied for the CORE program this year.

CLICK HERE to see which schools the MSBA invited into this year’s CORE program.

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