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Rockland

$86m school project OK’d; tax vote next

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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An $86 million proposal to construct a middle school and renovate Rockland’s aging high school won unanimous support at Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting. The real test comes Saturday, when voters decide by ballot whether they want to raise their property taxes for 25 years to cover the cost.

The building project has already secured a commitment from the state’s School Building Authority to reimburse 64 percent of the cost. That’s the highest percentage the state offers and represents $53 million for this project.

The town would pay the remaining $33 million through a temporary tax increase called a debt exclusion, which would remain on the tax rate for 25 years. To the owner of an average-priced home of $296,500, that would translate to an additional $23 in real estate taxes in the first year of the loan, $127 in the second, and $237 in the third. For the 22 years after that, the project would add about $400 annually to that home’s tax bill.

Town Administrator Allen Chiocca thinks the chances are good the ballot question will pass. “This town just approved a $2.8 million override that supported the school and other town budgets,’’ he said, “and I suspect this will pass if the same people get out.’’

The permanent override added $427 to the annual tax bill of the average home.

“What I’m hearing from a lot of people who opposed the override is that they support this tax increase because it’s for a fixed amount of time,’’ Chiocca said.

Selectman Michael Zupkofska, a fiscal conservative who opposed the $2.8 million override, plans to vote in favor of the school debt exclusion.

“I feel differently about a debt exclusion compared to a permanent tax increase, so I’m willing to take the risk,’’ Zupkosfka said. “Still, I understand totally that some people can’t pay this because of the positions they’re in. We are a blue-collar community.’’

To boost the chances of passage, a well-organized pro-override group plans to be out in force this week. “We have 250 lawn signs and six 3-by-5-foot larger signs out,’’ proponent Julie Shields said after the Town Meeting vote. “This is going to be the town’s ‘crown jewel.’ I honestly think the stars are aligned for Rockland this time.’’

In his recent open letter to the public, School Superintendent John Retchless said the new middle school features larger classrooms along with fully equipped science labs for each “team’’ grouping of students.

The building would have a 125-seat lecture hall and library media center that can be used by both the middle school and high school, since the buildings would be connected. There also would be a full-size gymnasium with bleachers that would be available to various sports leagues within the community.

Middle school students would continue to attend classes at the existing school. Once the new school is built, the former middle school would be demolished.

Rockland High School has been in danger of losing its accreditation because of its outdated science labs. Local funds covered the cost of renovating four labs last year, but there are still three to go. Those are to be rolled into the upcoming project, said Retchless, which would solve the accreditation issue.

Project plans also call for gutting the high school’s auditorium and replacing it with an 800-seat theater. The gymnasium also would be overhauled, and the high school would get new plumbing, electrical and heating systems, along with new windows and a new roof.

“Both schools will have new furniture and equipment and the latest technology in every classroom and every lab,’’ the superintendent said.

Chiocca said voters would not be surprised by Saturday’s debt-exclusion vote on the project. “The town has been at this a long time,’’ Chiocca said. “They’ve spent five years putting this proposal together.’’

He added that town voters must act quickly if they want to lock in the state’s high reimbursement rate for school construction. The work, Chiocca said, would resolve building issues in grades 5 through 12 for many years to come.

Superintendent Retchless predicts construction could begin by next August if voters support the project Saturday. The town’s selectmen, Finance Committee, and School Committee are all backing the debt exclusion.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com