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LEXINGTON

School projects are up for vote

$62.7m in taxes on ballot Tuesday

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / January 19, 2012
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As the mother of two children attending Lexington’s Estabrook Elementary School in the fall of 2010, Gretchen Reisig said, it was nerve-racking when potentially harmful levels of a chemical were found in the building.

Lexington abruptly closed the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school while scrambling to bring the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the building into compliance with federal standards.

After more than a week, the district reopened the school, but concerns about the chemical lingered, triggering a number of meetings with parents before school officials decided they needed to move forward with an emergency effort to replace the 51-year-old building.

“It was a rough year . . . because you didn’t really know what was going to happen,’’ Reisig said. “It’s nerve-racking to think you have exposed your child to such a thing.’’

Next week, Lexington voters will go to the polls to decide a proposal that would raise taxes for the construction of a new Estabrook school through a Proposition 2 1/2 debt-exclusion override.

However, the ballot for Tuesday’s special election will also have a request for $22.7 million to pay for renovations to the Bridge and Bowman elementary schools.

If both questions are approved, property taxes on the average Lexington home, with an assessed value of $599,000, would increase by $300 in fiscal year 2014, and half of the town’s six elementary schools would become major construction sites. The tax increase would diminish in subsequent years until the town pays off the debt in 20 years.

The massive undertaking of construction at three elementary schools, and the corresponding need for temporary tax increases to fund the work, has prompted parents, such as Reisig, to join a “Yes for Our Schools’’ campaign that is making phone calls and sending out letters trying to rally support for the ballot measures.

Although no group has organized to counter the “Yes’’ campaign, override opponents are raising objections about everything from the tax impact of the projects to the type of work proposed for the Bridge and Bowman schools, which some say should be replaced instead of being renovated.

One of the most persistent critics of the Bridge and Bowman school proposals has been Selectman Peter Kelley, who said the town has built new Fiske and Harrington elementary schools in the past 10 years, and should replace the Bridge and Bowman schools to keep them on par with the system’s other facilities.

At 45 years old, the Bridge and Bowman schools both need new heating systems, new lighting, and additional space. The schools also don’t have sprinkler systems and don’t meet federal accessibility standards for the disabled; also, the Bowman school needs a new roof, according to school officials.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we leave two districts as second-class citizens,’’ said Kelley.

Kelley said the town should take advantage of its strong financial position and its ability to get low-interest loans to build new Bridge and Bowman schools, rather than undertake the difficult task of retrofitting the old buildings for new uses.

Margaret Coppe, a member of the Lexington School Committee who is chairing the “Yes for Our Schools’’ campaign, said the problem with building new Bridge and Bowman schools is that both facilities are considered structurally and educationally sound, and don’t meet the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s criteria for state funding.

If Lexington endeavored to build new Bridge and Bowman schools, Coppe said, it would cost the town about $80 million.

The new Estabrook school is expected to cost the town about $40 million, but the state is expected to reimburse the town for about 32 percent of the new school.

“Ultimately it comes down to the fiscal responsibility that the School Committee has, as well as the educational commitment that we have,’’ Coppe said. “We do have to be aware that somewhere along the way, someone pays for all of this.’’

Jesse Segovia, a Town Meeting member and chairman of Lexington’s Republican Town Committee, said he agrees that the work at the three schools needs to be done, but his concern is with the override raising property taxes on residents living fixed incomes.

Segovia said Lexington residents already pay a surcharge on their real estate taxes toward the town’s Community Preservation Act program, and he would like to see the town find other ways to pay for the school projects. He said if Lexington shifts its employees to the state’s Group Insurance Commission, the town could save money on health care and use the money for the school projects.

Jen Vogelzang, who has had children at the Bowman school for several years, said she believes the town is making a fiscally prudent move in seeking the Bridge and Bowman renovations through an override. Vogelzang said one of her children was in a classroom in the Bowman school when the ceiling fell in, and if the school district delays renovations, it risks throwing more money at outdated heating and mechanical systems that already need to be replaced.

If voters approve the Bridge and Bowman projects, renovations would begin this spring, and students would remain in the buildings while the work is underway, though much of it would be done over the summer and other times when classes are not in session.

If voters approve the Estabrook project, the new school would be built next to the current building. The timeline calls for work to begin later this year, and the current building to be demolished in the summer of 2014, with students moving into the new facility that fall.

Reisig said she believes Lexington voters will support all of the school projects on Tuesday’s ballot.

“Yes, it’s an increase in taxes, absolutely, but you have to make capital investments,’’ she said. “If you want to have a good educational system, you have to have a good place to send your kids.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe.com.

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