After a strong show of hands Monday night, Concord residents at a Special Town Meeting passed an article to borrow $92.5 million to build a new regional high school. Tonight, it's Carlisle's turn to vote on the project.
After about two hours of debate, there was a motion to call the question. Concord Moderator Eric Van Loon asked for a show of hands and made a determination that the ayes were many more than the nays. There was no need to count ballots.
Van Loon said, with 1,629 voters in attendance, “this is one of the largest Town Meetings we have held.”
Regional partner Carlisle votes tonight on the same article. Both towns must also pass the vote at the polls on Nov. 15 for the School Committee to move forward and negotiate further details.
Michelle Ernst, co-chair of the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Building Committee, made the presentation, saying the Monday night meeting was the culmination of about 12 years of planning and study.
Ernst said the accrediting board of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges has warned the town that the school does not meet educational standards, “and the next step is probation.”
Ernst said feasibility studies were done in 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2010, when the state School Building Authority visited Concord and said a new facility was preferable to a series of renovations.
The School Committee had sent in statements of interest to the MSBA annually from 2006 to 2009, and finally in 2010 “got an invitation to submit a plan” to the MSBA.
“The MSBA said only a long-term solution would suffice,” Ernst said.
She said the MSBA approved a design drawn up by The Office of Michael Rosenfeld on Sept. 28 and promised to contribute $28 million or approximately 35 percent to the project cost so long as state guidelines were followed.
The tax burden on Concord citizens is expected to be $393 on the median home valued at $657,000 during the peak of the borrowing, or about 2019, according to Finance Director Tony Logalbo. He said the number would “taper down” until 2030 when the bonds would be paid off.
“The best opportunity is now,” said Logalbo, “to get $28 million. If we do not approve this article tonight, we get no contribution and we will have to deal with the school on our own.”
School Committee co-chairman Jerry Wedge said the new facility would be more compact than the sprawling single-story school.
One issue yet to be worked out is where to park the buses since the bus depot will be overtaken by the new building. Wedge said the committee is working that out now, and may have an answer in January. He said the buses could be moved, or the town could contract out the bus services.
He estimated that construction could begin during the fourth quarter of 2012 and finish up during the fall of 2015.
The selectmen urged passage of the article, saying it spoke to “how we value education as a town.”
However, opposing the plan was Simon Willard Road resident and former selectman Virginia McIntyre, who said the town has too much debt now, with the three elementary schools still being paid off. She favored the approach taken by private schools that develop five-year capital plans and systematically fix their facilities rather than assuming further debt that taxpayers in Concord can ill afford.
“I feel like Cassandra,” said McIntyre, referring to the ancient Greek myth of a woman who saw the future but was not believed.
“We have an unprecedented debt burden now,” she said, noting that Alcott cost $16 million, Thoreau cost $17 million and taxpayers paid for a new Willard without state support for $27 million. The elementary schools will be paid off from 2025 to 2029, she said. “The debt burden used to be $5.7 million; now it is $71 million and it’s not going away.”
McIntyre said a “middle ground” existed where the town “created a master plan for present and future needs.” She said the town would “pace its capital spending,” building and maintaining the facilities as needed. She called for a new science building now, and “keep the rest of the school safe” and redo it in five-year increments. She said changes in enrollment could be accommodated that way, as well as easing the burden on the taxpayer.
“We have been on a spending spree and it is all coming to a head at once,” said McIntyre. “Let’s go one step at a time using a long-term plan. Vote no and ask for a better plan.”
Lee Ann Kay called on the meeting to “reject this article and ask the School Committee to develop a phased in plan.”
People streamed out after the vote on Article 1, but Van Loon soon took up Article 2, the authorization of a stabilization fund to reduce property taxes for the duration of the high school debt. Logalbo said, “This is simply a dedication of reserves to a known future cost.”
Article 2 passed nearly unanimously in the auditorium, cafeteria and gym. A two-thirds majority was required, and easily won.
Article 3 was a petition article by Phebe Ham “to help individuals understand the tax impact on their budgets.” Her article calls for a five-year projection of the tax burden on citizens. She said she needed 100 signatures to get her article on the warrant, “and I got double that.” She said there are many people “worried about their children, their jobs, and their future.”
“Our incomes are going down and our expenses are going up,” said Ham. “Five year projections are made regularly in government, and we have to too.”
The selectmen recommended no action. Board member Jeff Wieand said the petition is not the proper forum for establishing town policy. He said the Finance Committee should handle tax projections, and not Town Meeting. He said Ham never requested tax projections from the selectmen or the Finance Department, “and went directly to Town Meeting.”
The Finance Committee recommended affirmative action, although FinCom Chairman Carol Wilson said factors such as growth and state aid are hard to predict.
“Projections have been provided,” said Wieand. “They are not a bad thing. This is about how we run Town Meeting.”
Article 3 passed by simple majority.
Mari Weinberg saluted Ham, saying she has introduced 25 petition articles over the years and some 19 have passed. “That is a record,” said Weinberg. “To quote Cole Porter, ‘you’re the top.’” Ham got a round of applause.
Betsy Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.