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Big-picture view of new high school's cost

This viewpoint about rebuilding Arlington High School was written by Amy Speare, a member of the Arlington High School Building Committee.

benchmark 400

There are three primary contributors to the overall cost of the proposed new high school: high schools are costly, the Boston area construction market is expensive and Arlington High School has specific factors that increase its cost above a typical high school building project.

High schools are inherently expensive facilities to build. First, high schools are large. The new 408,590-square-foot school will be designed for 1,755 students, while the average Arlington elementary school currently has 450 students.

Second, high schools require many specialized spaces: science labs, auditorium, library, performing arts classrooms, makerspaces, athletics spaces and specialized program spaces.

Due to these factors, is not uncommon for high schools to cost six to eight times that of primary education facilities.

Modern high schools also need to be built to meet today’s education sizing standards. Many of the current school’s spaces are undersized and need to be brought in line with today’s teaching and learning size standards.

According to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, in its nearly 400-year history, the city is undergoing its largest recorded building boom. As with any market, when demand outstrips supply, prices go up. As a result, construction cost escalation in the Boston area is averaging 4 percent per year. Cost escalation must be taken into account when comparing the AHS project with any prior project -- especially those built a while ago like Newton North.

The Arlington project’s benchmark analysis compares the AHS project with Saugus, Somerville, Waltham and Belmont -- all schools being built in this decade, with a similar student population, in urban settings, with complicated construction sites. This side-by-side comparison shows that AHS’ construction cost per square foot is in line with comparable schools.

There are also a number of factors specific to Arlington’s project that contribute to the overall project cost. The current building strains to serve 1,400 students. Every year, spaces are created for new classrooms. Additionally, classroom use is very high, making scheduling very rigid, and thereby limiting students’ course options.

Over the past decade, the district’s enrollment has grown from 4,700 students to about 6,000. This is the equivalent of adding 3 elementary schools since 2009.

As a result, the high school’s population has increased 22 percent in 10 years.

Ranked No. 9 in the state by U.S. News and World Report in 2019 [No. 25 this year], Arlington High School’s educational program is stronger and broader than the average Massachusetts high school and a "standard" high school generated by MSBA’s high school template. The new building will include spaces required to not only avoid significantly reducing the wide-breadth of offerings for our students, but also to accommodate anticipated enrollment growth.

Building on an existing, occupied site, with phased construction is a very complex effort requiring attention to safety, utility coordination, segregation of active school buildings and grounds from construction work, minimizing disruption to classroom work, and careful attention to both the construction schedule and the academic schedule. These complexities, safety challenges and site coordination all create limitations for productivity that have significant impact on both schedule and budget.

Add to that, the AHS site is complicated: there is a 24-foot grade change, the Mill Brook runs under the site and there are known contaminants that must to be carefully managed during construction. All of these constraints add complexity -- and cost -- to the project.

Last, the AHS facility is home to additional programs and offices, with town/school offices and a 150 student preschool on-site. Early decisions were made to move the comptroller, IT and facilities departments out to reduce cost. The following education-related programs will remain: district administration and payroll, Menotomy Preschool, Arlington Community Education and the LABBB Special Education Collaborative.

Arlington is partnering with the MSBA to receive state funding for a significant portion of the project. It is important to note that the MSBA’s strict process ensures that districts are building educationally appropriate and fiscally responsible facilities.

To protect taxpayers’ investment in public education facilities, every step in the MSBA process requires thorough research and financial due diligence. Once the final project budget is set, it cannot be increased without local approval and cost overruns must be absorbed into the budget.

This process ensures that the scope of the project meets the needs of Arlington’s students while also ensuring fiscal responsibility.

In summary, there are numerous contributors that affect the cost of the new high school. The AHS Building Committee recognizes the need for fiscal prudence and remains committed to cost containment, while also ensuring Arlington has a building that will serve our students well for generations. 

This viewpoint was published Sunday, May 26, 2019. For more information on the proposed new high school, visit

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