Lowell High School project must move forward

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The construction of a new, state-of-the-art Lowell High School represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the academic landscape for every student in the Lowell Public Schools system.

When completed, the new Lowell High School will integrate the historic character of the school’s existing structure with new construction to form a 622,777-square-foot campus equipped with 21st century classrooms and features that will enable every student and educator to perform at their best.

As the largest school building project in the state’s history, it marks a monumental investment in our students and in the future of our community. Given the scale of the project, the process leading to its construction has been long and, at times, arduous. The collective will of our community to deliver a project that lives up to the standard that our students deserve has kept the project on track through several critical phases.

In 2019, a project funding agreement was finalized, stipulating the extent of the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s financial participation in the project. The agreement was formulated based on an exhaustive process to estimate the total cost of the project.

In the years since, as we are all aware, the world has changed dramatically. The COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout has affected nearly every aspect of life, and construction costs are no exception. Factory closures, employee shortages, and supply chain bottlenecks have led to significant increases for supplies and labor.

With these factors widely known, it has been anticipated that the Lowell High School project’s bottom line would be impacted. The extent of this impact remained unknown until earlier this month as the City’s team of consultants reconciled bid packages for phases 2 through 4 of the project. Through this process, as The Sun reported, it was determined that the project would exceed its original budget by $38.5 million.

This figure, entirely attributable to the pandemic’s influence on the construction market, has rightfully alarmed those invested in the project and those concerned with its burden to Lowell taxpayers. It is imperative, however, that we do not use this unavoidable overage as an excuse to relent from the long-sought-after objective of building a world-class Lowell High School facility.

It is important to keep the project moving forward and to not compromise the original design, cut any corners, or take from programming and instruction in any segment of Lowell Public Schools. Authorizing the borrowing of an additional $38.5 million will enable the timely execution of contracts and procurement of material, ensuring that the project’s timeline is not delayed.

We feel strongly that the City of Lowell and its taxpayers should not be left to fend for ourselves in responding to the pandemic’s impact on this project. We believe the Commonwealth should participate in offsetting budget overages, and we will be working actively in the weeks ahead to seek additional state funding for the project. The state delegation has pledged their full support of this effort as well.

Given the billions of dollars in federal relief available to the Commonwealth and historic surplus levels, there are several viable avenues for the state to increase its financial participation in the project.

Because of the project’s scale, size and duration, it is uniquely exposed to the market effects of COVID-19 through no fault of the City. The resulting cost overage cannot be covered by taking from the Lowell Public Schools budget, which is already being stretched to deal with other pandemic-related impacts to the education of our most important asset — our children.

Amending the loan order does not preclude the City from seeking funding to cover additional costs from the state or other sources. Though securing state funding may take time, it is imperative that the project continues to move forward. We have a responsibility to make sure that this project is completed according to the timeline and specifications that our community and our students have been promised.

-Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue & Lowell Superintendent of Schools Joel Boyd

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