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Winchester voters consider $18m school override Tuesday

Posted January 5, 2011 12:02 PM

Upset about the condition of the aging Vinson-Owen Elementary School, a group of concerned Winchester parents are asking homeowners in this affluent suburb to shoulder bigger property tax bills to pay for construction of a new school.

Voters head to the ballot box Jan. 11, to decide the fate of an $18 million debt exclusion override, a temporary tax increase that would fund the school construction project and renovations to the now vacant Parkhurst School, which would house students while the new Vinson-Owen is built.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

‘‘The Vinson-Owen project will solve townwide enrollment problems,’’ said Cindy Bohne, co-president of the Vinson-Owen Parents Association and a vocal advocate of the debt exclusion override, a temporary tax increase that would last only as long as the debt is on the books. According to Bohne, enrollment in the town’s public schools has ballooned 25 percent over the past decade and is projected to swell an additional 10 percent in the coming five years.

‘‘We don’t see enrollment growth as a bubble; it’s a long-term issue facing our schools, which are already bursting at the seams,’’ said Bohne, noting that Vinson-Owen has six portable classrooms while the Ambrose and Muraco elementary schools each have two. ‘‘This project will allow us to redistrict our students, which will resolve our enrollment issues.’’

The new 74,000-square-foot Vinson-Owen would be more than double the size of the existing school and have the capacity to accommodate 420 students, about 100 more than the existing facility. Its larger size will make it possible to redistrict the town’s five elementary schools.

Under the proposed redistricting plan, enrollment at the Ambrose, Lincoln, and Muraco elementary schools would decrease by 60 students each, while enrollment at the Lynch and Vinson-Owen schools would swell by 80 and 100 students respectively. To accommodate the increase in enrollment at Lynch, school administrators would be moved out of Lynch and into Parkhurst when the new Vinson-Owen opens in Sept. 2013, freeing up five classrooms at Lynch.

The total cost to taxpayers: Roughly $28.1 million, which includes about $1.6 million to renovate the Parkhurst, according to Bob Deering, chairman of the Educational Facilities Planning and Building Committee. Of that amount, Winchester would be required to fund just over $17.98 million; the state would cover the remaining $10.1 million.

Deering said building a new school was a less costly option than a renovation or addition to the existing building; those options would have cost local taxpayers about $19 million, Deering said. If the town approves the override, it will add $106 to $211 per year for the next 25 years to the property tax bill for the owner of an average home in Winchester, assessed at $757,000.

Some residents say the price tag is too steep. John Natale, the only Town Meeting member who voted against placing the question before voters in a town-wide election, argues that a new school is not needed.

‘‘It’s all sentiment and poetry,’’ Natale said of the override proposal. ‘‘There’s not a single valid reason to demolish the Vinson-Owen and build another. Winchester is already number one in the state in MCAS. What is a new school going to do? The physical plant is not a factor in the test scores; the educational culture in the community is the key factor and Winchester has an excellent educational culture.’’

Natale, who has formed a group called ’Stop the Override,’ said raising taxes to fund construction of a new school is fiscally irresponsible. See other coverage here.

‘‘The reason often cited for the override is that the state is going to reimburse us now, so we have to spend the money or we’re going to lose it,’’ Natale said. ‘‘That kind of thinking is flawed.
Ben Franklin said ’there’s no such thing as a bargain if you buy something you do not need.’ We would be spending nearly $20 million for something we do not need.’’

Natale fears the override to fund the Vinson-Owen project will be the first of several override attempts as the town scrambles to find a way to cover its operating expenses. State aid is expected to drop 5 percent in fiscal 2012, which begins July 1. And, like many cities and towns in Massachusetts, Winchester’s expenses are outpacing its revenues. According to Assistant Town Manager Mark Twogood, the town’s levy is projected to grow by about $2 million in the upcoming fiscal year; municipal health care costs alone are expected to swell by as much as $1.2 million.

The bottom line: Winchester is facing a deficit of $3.1 million for fiscal 2012.

Given this glum reality, Winchester’s Board of Selectmen is considering asking the voters to support a general override, or permanent tax increase. Town leaders are expected to decide this month whether to seek an override this spring or tap the town’s undesignated fund balance, or ‘‘free cash,’’ to close the looming budget gap, Twogood said.

In an effort to educate the public about the proposed Vinson-Owen project, the League of Women Voters and the Winchester Fund for Educational Excellence are co-hosting a special election forum at 2:45 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Vinson-Owen Elementary School, 75 Johnson Road.

Tours of the school also will be offered.

‘‘Winchester attracts new residents because of the high level of municipal services we provide, the fantastic businesses in our downtown, and the quality of our schools,’’ said Bohne, who also serves as a Town Meeting member and sits on Winchester’s Educational Facilities Planning and Building Committee. ‘‘The Jan. 11 election and Vinson-Owen project is only one step in a long-term vision for how Winchester will remain the thriving community it is today and will continue to be tomorrow.’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com

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