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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Newton North supporters get solid referendum win

NEWTON

Casting aside the warnings of from critics who said it would hobble the city's finances for decades, voters in Newton last night yesterday voted decisively to let the gave the city approval to move forward with the most expensive high school construction project in state history.

The site plan voters approved calls for an estimated $151 million replacement for the current Newton North High School, a 35-year-old building plagued by leaks, heating and cooling problems, and a lack of natural light.

Supporters said last night that, with the new school, students at Newton North will finally get facilities befitting a city that identifies itself with educational excellence. Newton North's SAT and MCAS scores annually rank it among the top high schools in the state, and the boy's basketball team has been state champions for the last two straight years.

"This is a real victory for the city of Newton," said Newton Mayor David B. Cohen cq, who staked much of his political capital behind the design created by a consortium led by prominent architect Graham Gund of Cambridge. "We are reaffirming out commitment to making sure that all our children receive a top-notch education."

The "yes" vote (8531 of the 14569 ballots cast) won handily yesterday with more than 58 percent of the vote and 24 of the city's 31 precincts. Voter turnout was 31 percent citywide, with the heaviest turnout on the city's north side, where the school's population base resides.

The vote was a vindication for Cohen, whose resistance to modifying Gund's vision and stubborn insistence that the city could pay for the project without overrides helped fuel the petition drive that forced yesterday's referendum vote.

Cohen has recently struck a slightly more conciliatory tone, saying he would like to cap the project's cost at $141 million. But Cohen stuck to his assertion last night that the city can afford to build the school without raising taxes or resorting to a debt-exclusion override, a temporary tax increase that lasts until the bonds on a particular municipal project are paid off.

Critics called the result disappointing. Jeffrey Seideman cq, president of the Newton Taxpayers Association, said that the vote simply sets up a future showdown in which voters will have to chose between a tax override or severe cuts in city services.

"I don't believe that anyone who is reasonable can believe that this can be done without additional money or massive layoffs," Seideman said.

Aldermen Ken Parker, Amy Sangiolo, Paul Coletti, George Mansfield, and Jay Harney released a statement last night congratulating the site plan supporters on their victory, but stressing that that "there are 6000 Newton voters who believe that there is more work to be done on the plan."

"We are committed to continuing to work to improve the plan as we move into the next phase," the statement said.

-- Ralph Ranalli

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