The cost of building a Massachusetts high school has exceeded $190 million, with a notable portion of that expense coming from asbestos abatement.
Newton North High School, located just outside of Boston, is the most expensive high school ever built in Massachusetts. As much as the school system touts its accomplishment by being $4 million to $5 million under budget, it also faces the reality that it spent nearly $14 million for the building demolition because of increased costs of removing asbestos.
Asbestos abatement, the process of removing the dangerous yet naturally forming mineral from any product, building or structure, played a significant role in escalating the school’s costs. Usually performed by licensed professionals, abatement is conducted with protective equipment to prevent the risk of dangerous exposure to deadly fibers.
In recent years, many schools at the secondary and collegiate level across the country have been required to conduct demolitions and re-constructions because of asbestos contaminants. The substance was widely used throughout the construction industry in previous decades, so as renovations occur, asbestos has to be removed or reinforced from many structures.
In 2010, Newton officials discovered that the school’s asbestos problem was much more significant than expected. The school initially budgeted about $7.2 million to demolish the school. The costs nearly doubled once asbestos was found in the exterior walls of the building, pushing the total to close to $14 million.
Reports show that as the building was dismantled, workers had to break down the structure brick by brick. Because asbestos was known to be present, careful handling had to be maintained because degradation of asbestos-containing materials can cause the toxic fibers to be released in the air, potentially causing those who are exposed to develop asbestos-related diseases.
One such disease is a lung cancer known as mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the lining of the lungs. It affects between 2,000 and 3,000 people per year, and there is no known cure.
In an educational environment with young students, there is little room for error when public health is a concern. Asbestos abatement must be performed in a timely and proper manner. For Newton North High School officials, they can take comfort in knowing proper abatement was performed, even though it came at a very steep price.
However, there are critics of the project who have spoken out about the total cost of the construction, claiming that such an elaborate building isn’t necessary because of financial constraints of the city and school.
“It’s still outrageously over the top (expensive),” said Jeff Seideman, co-chairman of the Newton for Fiscal Responsibility group. He and others take concern with the fact that when the project was initially discussed in 2000, estimates floated around that it would be a $40 million renovation. By 2006, the renovation turned into a complete replacement, boosting the cost up to $141 million. As the costs continued to mount, the project expense grew to its current tag, which is just over $190 million.
Still, some officials, like Bob Rooney, Netwon’s chief operating officer, believe that the total savings of around $4-$5 million from the final budget is a success.
“I think we’ve done a remarkable job,” Rooney said.
As his opinion is clearly not the only one on this matter, there is one thing that is certain. A new, beautiful and elaborate school exists in Newton, Massachusetts, enabling students to learn and grow, in an asbestos-free environment. Some may argue that you can’t put a price on that.