Higher cap adds flexibility at School Building Authority

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With 1,800 schools spread out across Massachusetts, some more than 100 years old, the Massachusetts School Building Authority can't replace or repair them fast enough. But it's about to get a little breathing room.

The Student Opportunity Act signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in November increased its annual project cap by $200 million, allowing the MSBA to approve up to $800 million in construction annually. The change won't necessarily allow the agency to authorize more projects, MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy said, but it gives the authority the flexibility to better manage some of the more expensive high schools and other projects in the pipeline.

Authority officials testified before the House Bonding Committee on Tuesday, updating the panel on the agency's activities. McCarthy said the MSBA has 312 ongoing projects, and since its creation in 2004 has put $14.2 billion into communities for new and upgraded schools.

"That's like Big Dig numbers, and I respectfully say we've had far less controversy in our spending," McCarthy said.

Committee Chairman Antonio Cabral called the MSBA "one of the most successful creations of the Legislature."

Last year, the MSBA received applications for 144 core and green repair school projects, and green-lighted only 53, including just 11 of 61 core school projects. The MSBA has a dedicated revenue stream of one penny of every dollar in sales that are subject to the state's 6.25 percent sales tax.

The agency also has a debt ceiling of $10 billion, and a current debt load of about $6 billion. "I don't think we'll ever get there because we're using a lot of our free cash to make sure we never get there," McCarthy said about reaching the debt ceiling.

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