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CARVER

Officials ponder school options

4th veto of project throws out plans

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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Officials are considering their next move toward replacing the town’s aging elementary school, now that Carver has become the first community to be officially bumped off the state’s priority list for school construction funding.

Supporters of a $45 million elementary school building were helpless to provide evidence of local support for the project by a July 1 deadline after a slim majority of town voters rejected it at the annual town election this spring. The Massachusetts School Building Authority had pledged to pay more than 56 percent of the project’s cost if voters backed it at the polls by that date.

After April’s defeat at the polls - the third time the project had lost a vote - its backers rallied for a last chance. School Committee members and local parents turned up for a selectmen’s meeting at the end of May and made the case for a special election to raise taxes for the project before July 1.

They said the town’s two adjacent elementary buildings are continuing to deteriorate. They said a serious problem in either building could mean double sessions for students. They said the state rated Carver Elementary School the 23d worst building out of 460 studied. They said postponing action on a new school would cost the town money because the shelf life of a feasibility study was running out.

They also might have said, as Superintendent Elizabeth Sorrell recalled last week, that the day on which the school question lost by 26 votes in a low turnout was “a horrendous day with torrential rain.’’ It was at the end of school vacation week and the day before Easter.

Three of the board’s five members were persuaded, but calling a special election requires a supermajority of four votes. The measure failed to get the fourth vote, and the deadline passed without a last hurrah at the polls.

Town leaders say they’re frustrated over the loss of state funding and the absence of a plan to get a new school built. Even the selectman who cast the deciding vote against the special election, recently elected John Franey, said last week, “We have to build it. There‘s no doubt about it.’’

Franey, also town tax collector and treasurer, was elected in the vote that defeated the school question, by an even narrower margin - 7 votes. Though the school is needed, he said, the problem is finding funding other than raising the town’s share through an override.

An override question just two months after voters repudiated a nonbinding resolution favoring the project was “too soon,’’ he said. “It’s just pushing to have vote after vote. We voted three times, it failed three times. Then there’s the economy. What with people struggling with jobs, I just don’t think the appetite is there.’’

Even strong supporters of the current plan, which calls for preserving the steel framework and some brick walls of the current school in a new structure, may lack the appetite to push for a new start for the project. The town can begin the process of reapplying for state funding after Jan. 1, but that may be too soon after supporters saw five years of planning work and local outreach go by the boards. A new application for state funding would probably earn the town a place in line, though not the priority it had, Sorrel said.

“Currently we have to step back and let’s assess where we are,’’ Sorrell said.

She said school officials held more than a score of public meetings to explain the project, but none drew more than 50 people, and proponents had trouble reaching the whole town in a community without a dominant medium. Carver has fewer local cable TV subscribers than most communities, she said.

The proposal was estimated to cost the average taxpayer $100 more in taxes each year, and mobile home park residents only $24 more, she said.

“I understand people are hard up,’’ Sorrel said. “But they turned down $27 million. . . . As citizens, we have failed to get the voting public to come out to vote.’’

State funders also said reassessment is called for.

“The next step for them is to decide how much they can afford to spend and what they can get the community to support financially and educationally,’’ said Carrie Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the school building authority.

Franey said he sees possibilities that might provide a funding source for a new elementary school in a few years. The Legislature is mulling changes in its formula for aid to education that might benefit Carver; new money could be dedicated to paying for the school. And the town has begun to build a new “pot of money’’ for building projects by making deposits each year. This year the amount was $60,000.

In the meantime Carver students and teachers are facing another year in worn-out buildings and officials are keeping their fingers crossed. If the outmoded heating system in the elementary school’s front building - which houses 300 students - fails, it would mean double sessions in the back building, Sorrell said. If the back building, which houses 700, loses heat, its students can’t fit in the front building. That would mean double sessions at the high school.

“Every day I just hope that nothing bad happens,’’ she said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.