High school renovation considered
In a town where operating beyond the normal tax rate has been unheard of, supporters of a construction project at Norton High School are trying to make history.
The upgrades are needed, those residents say, if local students are to receive an adequate education and property values are to be maintained. The supporters will ask Norton’s annual Town Meeting in June to support a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, which would require approval in a townwide vote.
The dollar amount won’t be formalized until a feasibility study is completed in about a month, but the chairman of the High School Building Committee said the cost will fall between $20 mil lion and $30 million, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority chipping in about 60 percent of that.
A 20-year loan for the project would increase the average property owner’s $4,000 tax bill by $80 to $120 annually during the repayment period.
“I tell people it will be a 2 to 3 percent increase,’’ said Kevin O’Neil, building committee chairman. “This new project is educationally sound, while being very realistic and conservative.’’
But Norton has proven itself to be a frugal town over the years, and opponents are already gearing up for this vote. For the past 30 years, Massachusetts communities have operated under Proposition 2 1/2, which limits increases in property tax revenue to 2 1/2 percent a year, unless residents vote to override those curbs.
In Norton, 10 attempts to increase taxes over the period have met with defeat, whether they were temporary debt exclusions for capital projects or permanent overrides of the tax rate.
In late 2002, townspeople had no interest in a $77.9 million proposal calling for a new high school and renovation of some other school buildings. O’Neil said that plan was far too elaborate and was based on the expectation of aggressive population growth.
The current high school proposal, based on this year’s enrollment of 700 students, calls for an overhaul of the 40-year-old building and the construction of a small addition, O’Neil said.
Once the feasibility study is done, the project will probably call for window replacement; upgrades to mechanical systems; a new roof; compliance with modern accessibility and fire codes; improvements to technology, science labs, gym space, locker rooms, cafeteria, kitchen, and restrooms; along with construction of an addition.
“We should have good information by the end of February or early March, and we’ll have multiple presentations reaching out to different parts of the community,’’ O’Neil said.
A pro-override group called PRIDE of NHS is ready to promote the project. Cochairwoman Sheri Cohen, the mother of two young children, said the citizens group was established in late summer. Before that, some of its members successfully promoted a Town Meeting article to spend $600,000 for the feasibility study that is underway.
“We went from door to door and did e-mail blasts,’’ Cohen said. “It was astonishing how many people came to the Town Meeting.’’
Authorization for the study sailed through. Members will even more aggressively pursue support for the debt exclusion in June.
Meanwhile, the other side is already discussing its strategy. “It’s still too early for a formal plan, but we’ll get the word out to the voters who don’t have a special interest but have to pay the bills,’’ said override opponent John Freeman. “They’re talking about a school we don’t need, to be paid for with money we don’t have.’’
Freeman said the debt exclusion might be a temporary increase for some, but it will be permanent for him, since he’s 67 years old. “Some people who are doing well think the others of us just aren’t managing our portfolios,’’ he said. “But there are a lot of people who are out of work. It’s a sad situation.’’
James Purcell, the former town manager, who retired this week, said, “Norton’s never gone beyond the tax rate to build or buy anything.’’
One of the town’s more recent projects, the police station, was completed 10 years ago under the regular tax rate.
“The fire station in the center of town is 50 years old and the Chartley Fire Station is even older, although both buildings are well maintained.’’ Purcell noted that the “not so quaint’’ Town Hall, a former gymnasium converted to offices in the 1970s, has some serious shortcomings.
Purcell offered no prediction on the fate of the current debt exclusion proposal, but said the committee promoting it has worked hard.
“The high school study has been, to date, more thorough than anything I’ve seen in my 35 years of public service,’’ he said. “I’m anxious to see what the outcome will be.’’