CIP Spending – The Right and Wrong Targets

Most of the funding for Newton’s school building maintenance comes from a fund called the CIP. CIP money, traditionally $1.75 million annually, is borrowed by the City via the sale of municipal bonds and is turned over to the Newton Public Schools to spend at their discretion. Each year Mike Cronin, NPS’s head of facilities, prepares a list of possible projects for review and approval by the School Committee. These projects typically include boiler replacements, door and window replacements, roof repairs, new elevators, new auditorium seating, etc.

The facilities management industry would call for at least $20 million each year to be spent on maintenance of Newton’s school buildings based upon replacement value. Yet the $1.75 million provided by the CIP is less than 10% of the amount recommended to simply keep our schools from physically deteriorating.

Now, some in our city government are calling for any shortfall in our short-term infrastructure construction budget (covering 4 elementary school modulars, upgrades and additions to Day Middle School, and sprinkler upgrades) to come from the CIP.

To me it is unconscionable to divert even a small portion of what little maintenance funds we have into creating new space. An irresponsible lack of maintenance has plagued our city buildings since Proposition 2.5 came into effect in 1981, and since the excellent analysis of the CAG in 2009 it seemed as though we had recommitted to maintenance.

So how can our smart elected officials propose tapping the CIP for new space construction? Might they believe that the available pot of maintenance money is so hopelessly small, that the deterioration of our schools so inevitable in the face of current under-investing, that it makes little difference if we spend even less on maintenance? To me this must be the belief behind this proposal.

School Committee members Matt Hills and Margie Ross Decter both have maintained that CIP money, as little as it is, must remain available for maintenance — Matt, by refusing to vote “yes” on approving the modular expenditures budget until the figures for Day are available, and Margie by suggesting a friendly amendment to the modular vote that would preclude tapping the CIP to cover any budget shortfalls. Her amendment (not taken up) would mean that the Day scope would have to be reduced if the budget came in high.

The school operations department has stated that their budget barely allows them to tackle work order backlogs, and that the bulk of their efforts are for urgent or emergency matters. Two thousand workorders are passed unfilled from one year to the next. Mike Cronin has stated that if he had just one small team in addition to his present staff and subcontractors, and this team was assigned exclusively to chip away at old work orders, he could make significant progress on so many modest items that matter to building occupants.

We can and must do better at maintaining our school buildings, and I believe that we should start by protecting the CIP money from being spent on new infrastructure projects.