The Lessons of Newton North
The neighbors might have thought Jeff Seideman was having a dinner party. Why else, on an ice-cold night in February, would 10 cars be parked outside his brick Colonial in Newtonville?
Seideman, a slightly paunchy, bald-on-top fellow with a bushy blond mustache, greeted his guests just inside the mudroom and ushered them into the dining room. Shedding heavy jackets, they crowded around the lacquered wooden table, took seats, and introduced themselves. Many had never met before, and certainly none had come for the food (though Seideman had laid out Doritos and ginger ale). Instead, they came because they were united in a common belief—that the Newton North High School project, now priced at $195.2 million, had become an unmitigated disaster.
In fighting the beast, the group’s primary tactic—as made clear by the agendas Seideman distributed—would be to defeat a tax hike proposed by Newton Mayor David Cohen. Under Massachusetts’ infamous Proposition 2½, cities and towns are able to raise property taxes only 2½ percent annually; for anything more, a so-called override referendum is needed. Cohen had warned that without the extra cash, the next year’s budget would fall $8.6 million short, forcing funding cuts to the school system. But as fa
r as this group was concerned, Cohen wasn’t to be trusted. In the seven years since the idea of building a new high school had been floated, the cost of the project had nearly tripled. It was about time, they figured, that Newton tightened its belt.
As the group discussed strategy, they barely noticed Seideman’s daughter, then a junior at North, slide through a hallway and scurry upstairs to her bedroom, where stacks of schoolbooks were waiting for her. It made for a strange scene: high school daughter upstairs with her books; dad and friends downstairs, plotting to cut off money for schools. In Newton, of all places.
Then again, Newton isn’t quite what it seems anymore. While things in the suburb may appear as idyllic as ever, look a little closer and you see pockmarked streets, crumbling municipal buildings, and outdated, deteriorating equipment. Not too long ago, busted shocks on a 26-year-old fire truck sent it into retirement—right after it slammed into a pothole, injuring a firefighter sitting in back. The maxed-out budget just forced the city to eliminate 13 positions from its police force, shutter its four branch libraries, and slash its road paving, sidewalk maintenance, and snowplowing budgets. But in a city like Newton—the place people move to for the schools—none of that stings quite like the recent elimination of 79 school jobs, about half belonging to teachers. The slap-in-the-face irony, of course, is that the cutbacks came even as the city was sinking those 200 million bucks into the Taj Mahal of a high school rising on Walnut Street.
With its professional-grade auditorium (in addition to the theater one room over), 4,000-square-foot student-run restaurant, and indoor track, the new school has been ripped by critics as a testament to educational excess. Slated to open in September 2010, it was designed by the world-class architectural firm of Graham Gund, which is renowned as much for its work at museums and universities as for its propensity for sketching pricey blueprints. Though Gund’s portfolio includes designs for the Taft School in Connecticut, New York’s tony Horace Mann School, and Concord Academy, Newton North is only its second public high school.
In his dining room last winter, Seideman and his guests (who chose to name their group Newton for Fiscal Responsibility) were riled by more than merely the glass and steel edifice (which one attendee deemed “retarded”). They were angry at Cohen (a “schmuck”). They had had it with the city’s 24-member city council, the board of aldermen (one member was labeled a “puss-face,” another declared “dead from the neck up”). And they were upset with their neighbors (“so dense”), who instinctively approve anything “for the kids” without ever considering the consequences. Seideman, a levelheaded former teacher, waxing rhetorical, proposed one way Cohen could fix the city’s mess. “Cut back on the school project,” he said. “If you don’t want to do it, then you, Mr. Mayor, are choosing between bricks and students.”
More than anything, it’s the windows that tell the story of how the new high school got so expensive. The problem starts with the old Newton North, a hulking red-brick colossus built in 1973 and regretted ever since. Students complain plenty about interloping mice, but the number one gripe revolves around a lack of views of the outside world. Several classrooms nestled deep inside the fortresslike building simply don’t have any windows at all—which makes the learning environment glum and the ventilation poor.
Mayor Cohen, who’s been the driving force behind the construction of the new school, says the dearth of windows was a mistake worth correcting. There were others, of course (for one, the school’s temperamental HVAC system), and by the turn of the millennium, just about everyone in town figured either a major renovation or a whole new school was in order. In 2004, when those two options were still being weighed, Cohen wisely went ahead and grabbed $46.6 million in state funds, along with assurances that the city could use the money for either. Cohen’s timing was impeccable: A month later, the state shifted control of financing for school projects to the newly created Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), a stricter regime that would report to the state treasurer. Today, Katherine Craven, who directs the agency, doubts Newton would’ve gotten the state money had it waited. “We might have suggested to fix the HVAC system and not done anything more with them,” she says.
With the cash in hand, Cohen pressed ahead with a plan for a new building—which brings us back to the desire for windows, a seemingly small request that ended up dictating the entire design of the school. “The most important lesson that we learned from [the old] building is that every learning space in the new building will have access to natural light,” says Cohen. The easiest way to accomplish that noble goal might have been to go tall, creating a relatively compact, multistory building. Unfortunately, anything too high—the building will be four stories as it is—would loom over the suburban neighborhood like a mini skyscraper, agitating the neighbors. So the architects decided the school would have to be built in a zigzag configuration that allowed every classroom to face out. Such snaking layouts, though, can inflate costs in surprising ways. According to Craven, the roof for Newton North will cost 50 percent more than the average for other recently completed schools—largely because, well, all that zigzagging requires an awful lot of roof.
Many of the windows slated to be installed in the new building will be large, lovely, floor-to-ceiling numbers. In the long run, those big panes may save Newtonites a bit on energy costs (more sunshine equals less electricity to power the lights) and lead to optimally cheery classrooms, but they won’t be cheap. According to the MSBA’s study of the building’s costs, Newton will spend about two and a half times what other schools have for windows, largely because of the price of installation. “If a window’s small enough, one laborer can put it in,” says Craven. “If you go up another size, you need two people.”
Incredulous that nobody in town ever took heed of this point, Craven muses that decision-makers in Newton simply must have set out to build the school they desired—or figured they deserved—while giving little thought to the final price tag. Newton North, the most expensive school in state history, is on pace to cost $112,686 per student, whereas comparable projects in Quincy and Chicopee come in at $84,511 and $67,073 per student, respectively. Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, completed in 2004, cost just $46,188 per pupil. Granted, things like the rising cost of steel and gas have driven up costs, but the project was always a whopper. The new Newton North, says state Treasurer Tim Cahill, is “not only slightly on the high end. It’s way out on the high end.”
On May 20, the day of the override election, Sharon Jacobs stood outside the polls at Zervas Elementary School, urging her fellow Newtonites to raise their taxes. She had been into activist causes in her twenties—AIDS awareness, gay rights, etc.—but nothing lately had stoked her fire like this vote. She has a five-year-old son, Max, and a seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, and few things are more important than their education. So she stood out there, holding a wooden stick with three signs attached to it. The top was a standard blue and white “VOTE YES” placard, which like its “VOTE NO” counterpart had sprouted up on lawns across town. The next sign down was a construction paper and marker job by Max, who had drawn a blockish, authoritarian-looking figure in a familiar blue hat. Max had depicted a cop, Jacobs said, “because he knew that he’d l
ose 15 police officers if there’s a no vote.” Max, as you can tell, is very advanced. His equally precocious sister designed the third sign, which declared: “Please Vote Yes! I (HEART) BOOKS!” “Sophie is a bibliophile,” Jacobs explained.
There are only so many places in this great country of ours where a parent might earnestly refer to her seven-year-old as a bibliophile, and Newton, God bless it, is one of them. Ever since the educational pioneer Horace Mann moved the country’s first teacher training academy to town in 1848, Newton has been a magnet for the book-minded. And though school financing has changed over the years, the historical record suggests that Newtonites have always gotten carried away on the subject—even elevating it to a matter of eternal salvation. The story goes that Mann once burst into the office of his friend Josiah Quincy and cajoled the one-time mayor of Boston to give him the cash for his school by telling him that the highest seat in heaven was reserved for the man willing to make such a commitment to education. Quincy wrote the check on the spot.
Larry Zuckerman, a recently retired Newton teacher who’s studied the local schools extensively, says Mann left behind protégés who made the city synonymous with educational excellence. That reputation drew hordes of families during the post–World War II suburban boom. “People had high aspirations for their kids,” says Zuckerman, who holds a Ph.D. in education. While enrollment shot up 60 percent in the 1950s and early ’60s, Newton’s innovative administrators partnered with professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to develop trailblazing curricula. Meanwhile, Harvard education students regularly taught courses at city schools. “There were a lot of ideas coming in,” Zuckerman says. All this inventiveness helped win the city over a half-million dollars in grant money to fuel robust new programs.
By 1964, Time magazine was reporting that Newton’s youngsters read at a level two years ahead of the national average. The article fawningly painted the city as the “Island of Change” that would set “a pace for schools everywhere.” Needless to say, such a complimentary feature in such a prominent magazine became a tremendous point of pride (one archivist in the Newton History Museum even dubs it “legendary”). Ever since, a culture of educational excellence has flourished in the city. The more that reputation grew, the more parents, teachers, and administrators all wanted to move there (this has, as residents are very aware, provided a nice boost to real estate value). Educational greatness is now seen as a birthright in Newton, something that sets it apart. Speaking at a meeting of Newton’s board of aldermen last spring, Alderman Paul Coletti criticized the state’s suggestion that the city cut some of North’s programs to save space and money. “When they make their recommendation, what they’re saying is we should be mediocre like everyone else,” he boomed. “That’s wrong.”
Naturally, that air of entitlement extends to parents, who at times may invest themselves in their kids’ education a bit too much. Jaclyn Biancuzzo, a mother of two Newton-schooled students and herself a North alumna, says that parents are constantly complaining to teachers, nitpicking over everything from lesson plans to homework assignments. “The parents are very, very involved in education in Newton,” she says, “more so than anywhere else.”
Given the prevailing mindset, is it any wonder that the mayor of such a city would lead the charge to build the perfect high school, no matter the cost? And is it any wonder that the city went along for the ride? Even though howls of outrage went up every time the building’s cost did, few seemed interested in scrapping the project altogether. The school board and the aldermen signed off in 2004 and 2006, respectively, and in a January 2007 city referendum on the site plan, nearly 60 percent of voters backed moving ahead with the Gund design, then priced at $140 million. Even last May, with the price already scraping $200 million, the aldermen approved $56 million of additional funding.
This isn’t what the educational forefathers of the 1960s would have envisioned. Though the city had just sunk $19 million into new buildings when the Time article was written, the focus was still on classroom learning. “What makes Newton different,” the story noted, “is its refusal to mistake physical growth for educational progress.”
With its high ceilings, molded columns, and terra cotta–colored walls, Newton’s Aldermanic Chamber, on the second floor of City Hall, has a thoroughly democratic feeling—as if it could have hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In mid-April, a tired-looking Cohen showed up there to lobby the aldermen for still more cash for the school. When board president Lisle Baker opened the meeting by announcing that the additional $56 million the mayor was after would raise the total to $197.5 million, Baker paused for the slightest moment, letting the massive figure dangle in the air. Cohen shook his head. It was a disbelieving, how-on-earth-did-it-come-to-this shake. Later, he would say it meant nothing at all, but anyone who saw it knew it was a sign of frustration. How could it not be? Angry residents were practically lining up outside his office door with pitchforks, and even though the next mayoral election wasn’t for another year and a half, the Newton Tab, the local weekly, was already calling for him to announce he would not seek a fourth term.
A fixture on the Newton political scene, Cohen began serving on the board of aldermen while in law school at Boston University. Six years later he moved up to the State House, where he represented the city for 19 years. He became mayor a decade ago, and in 2005 was reelected with nearly 60 percent of the vote. But the North project has destroyed him politically.
Aside from being the man ultimately responsible for the escalating price, Cohen has also been accused of being cagey about when and why the cost has risen. For instance, early last year, just weeks after the Globe criticized him for changing his tune on whether the city could afford its ambitious school spending without tax hikes, Cohen set off a new round of head-scratching during an aldermen’s meeting. Along with papers outlining how the city would pay for an $187 million school (the estimate at the time), Cohen distributed a payment plan showing how Newton might cope with a $195 million bill—just in case. What the mayor was seemingly aware of, if not willing to say, was that the price was due to go up again. Even Alderman Sydra Schnipper, a close Cohen supporter, admits, “The mayor has not shared as readily as he might have in the past.”
Partly because of his strained relationship with the media—in April he booted a Globe reporter from his office mid-interview, and he is engaged in a long-running feud with the Tab—Cohen comes off as a bit aloof. He hired a press secretary four years ago, but that only made people wonder why the mayor of a suburban city (especially one without so much as a daily newspaper of its own) needs a press secretary. And as it turned out, no spinmeister could have saved him after his biggest blunder. In May, just before the override vote, Cohen presented his budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Along with threatening broad cuts if the override failed to pass, it also happened to include a juicy raise for him. The headlines practically wrote themselves, sending Newtonites into a frenzy. Wonkette, the popular national politics blog, boiled the situation down succinctly: “Mayor Cuts Every Program, Gives Self 28% Raise.”
The full story was, of course, a bit more complicated. Cohen had steadfastly refused raises in the previous decade, believing the city’s money could be put to better use elsewhere. Only as it became clear that his days as mayor could be dwindling did he ask for what he thought he was due. But the political boner was so ill timed that even Move Newton Forward, an activist group allied in favor of the override, was moved to disown him.
In hopes of salvaging the override vote, Cohen backpedaled on plans for the raise and then announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Still, to the delight of Seideman’s opposition group—which had moved out of his dining room and into the Boys and Girls Club as it swelled to close to 50 members—the override was trounced anyway, 55 percent to 45 percent. And Cohen, who figured that the capstone to his 38 meritorious years of service to Newton might be the beautiful new high school, instead will be remembered most for losing his neighbors’ trust—and possibly much more.
Newton’s Fire Station Number 2, at the intersection of Route 16 and Commonwealth Avenue, ought to be gutted. The HVAC system is shot, plumbing needs to be replaced, and the electrical system could use an overhaul. Fire-fighters complain their showers are always cold. The station’s two female firefighters have perhaps an even bigger beef: They don’t have separate showers or bathrooms.
While we’re at it, the jakes at Station 2 would appreciate a new door on the far-right stall in the locker room, because currently there is none. But most remarkably, there aren’t any fire detectors in this firehouse (at least help is nearby). “The police and fire departments are bare-bones,” says Newton fire union head Tom Lopez. “Everybody believes in a good, solid education, but you need to have a balanced approach to your priorities.”
Over the past five years, Newton’s education budget has jumped 21 percent while the public works, police, and fire budgets have hardly budged. (The police budget was actually cut by almost $700,000 this year.) Newton, in other words, has come up with the extra cash for its schools in part by spending comparatively little on the rest of Newton. Consider: Just 3 percent of the annual budget goes to paying off debt on Newton’s old projects. While such low debt may seem like a good thing, when a town has too little, chances are that means it’s not spending enough on new buildings or on fixing roads (by contrast, Brookline devotes 7 percent of its budget to debt payment, while Wellesley earmarks 6.3 percent).
And when things inevitably fall into disrepair, the price of replacement is often higher than the cost of upkeep would have been. Cohen himself admits that the city has neglected its buildings and infrastructure “for two generations.” Surprisingly, that neglect even includes educational buildings. Hampered by yet more defunct HVAC units, four of Newton’s 15 elementary schools need to be replaced, at about $26 million a pop; the rest need serious work. Alderman Ken Parker, who, like Coletti, intends to run for mayor next year, says the total cost for fixing the elementary schools could equal that of Newton North.
All of which makes this an exceptionally bad time to be building a $200 million high school. Newton wound up covering nearly 60 percent of its bill for North by floating 30-year bonds, and though the particulars of that financing scheme may be of interest only to Kennedy School students, the bottom line for residents is that for the next three decades their city will have no economic wiggle room. The annual toll on Newton’s operating budget will start out small, but balloon fast. This year, local taxpayers will hand over just under $1 million to pay off debt on North bonds; however, starting in 2010, the annual bill will leap from $3 million to $4 million, to $6, $7, $8, and $10 million—much of it coming out of the very same overextended budget that couldn’t support the 79 school staff and 13 police positions that were cut this year. Clearly, more bloodletting is on the way.
According to the city’s forecasts, between 2015 and 2022, paying off Newton North will account for about three-fifths of all the city’s debt, a commitment that Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, calls extraordinarily large. Barring a dramatic financial reversal for the city, then, any new projects will have to be paid for by further override referendums. Problem is, the North debacle has cost politicians in Newton their credibility, leaving citizens less than likely to willingly hand over cash to City Hall. And it’s not just firefighters sweating the tough times ahead. Even school administrators realize they’re now in a pinch. “It will be a challenge to raise the funds to do everything we need to do,” says Newton Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young.
Should those future overrides fail to pass, and the elementary schools continue to deteriorate, Newton’s status as an educational mecca will begin to crack. And because of North, there’ll be less money to address the city’s other, long-ignored problems. “If you cut back teachers, police, firefighters, park maintenance, street maintenance, year after year after year,” Alderman Parker says, “at a certain point you are going to wake up one morning and discover that Newton is no longer Newton.”
That kind of looming downward cycle means Newton will face hard choices and have to swallow some tough pills. Here’s one of the first: When the new Newton North opens, its classrooms will be 780 square feet, which is exactly 70 square feet smaller than state regulations have required since 2006. So even in a 413,000-square-foot building, the new classrooms will be outdated, too small by Massachusetts standards. If budget woes cause additional teacher layoffs, class sizes will go up and more and more kids will have to pack into too-small classrooms. Two hundred million dollars will have purchased a cramped and uncomfortable school.
At least there will be plenty of natural light.