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A lively debate on Natick's proposed new high school

Posted by Tom Coakley  March 10, 2010 11:26 PM

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Local officials made the case for a new $89 million high school in forum Wednesday night that included a lengthy presentation by a key opponent of the project.

The format differed from last week’s community-senior center forum in the absence of Natick Forever chair Jimmy Brown. Erich Thalheimer acted as moderator and allowed both Jeff Silverstein and School Committee candidate Mark Schultz—neither of whom were on the panel—to give lengthy talks.

Voters go to the polls March 30 to decide on a $46 million tax hike to pay the town's portion of the project cost. The rest would be covered by a state grant.

After school building committee chair John Ciccariello opened with presentation on the proposed high school, Silverstein showed a slideshow based on the theme of “reNOvate,” a play on words to suggest that voters reject the ballot question, thus forcing the school system to pursue renovation.

Silverstein opposes the new high school.

“I believe it’s an excessive project and I feel it will be hard to demonstrate clear educational benefits from this project,” he said.

He highlighted different areas he feels warrant attention like the fact that an average household will spend $4,000 over the 20-year debt repayment period if the high school is built. Silverstein said the amount is not small to families who could better use the money for college tuition or retirement.

He also highlighted other capital projects that are looming on the horizon including $3.4 million for the Kennedy Middle School, $1.8 million for Memorial Elementary, and $17 million for public works projects, and suggested more tax increases could await taxpayers.

Subsequent speakers spent much of the forum’s last hour rebutting points that Silverstein made.

State Representative David Linsky, D-Natick, said that if Natick turns down the state funding, it’s unlikely the town will soon get a chance for such a large award from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“The reality is that there is not $43 million held in reserve for the town of Natick. Natick would be sending a message to the state…that we’re not willing to pay our share,” said Linsky. “The reality is that there are 168 projects chomping of at the bit for the $500 million per year” that the authority gives out.

A woman who identified herself as a single working mother said that her family would be affected by the $200 annual increase that the cost of the high school would bring to the average Natick tax bill.

“The bottom line is that no matter what, it’s going to cost me and every other tax payer a lot of money,” she said. “At this point, I believe we either get a new school or throw money down the hole.”

Cathi Collins, a Finance Committee member, said she was personally insulted when Silverstein suggested the school district should apply for exemptions from federal disability requirements if it renovates. The current high school is not compliant with federal disability standards —classroom doors are not wide enough, locker rooms are not handicapped accessible, and required ramps are few.

“It would be unconscionable to save money by making the building non-ADA compliant,” said Collins.

And while Silverstein pointed out that a new high school would have less space than the current high school, School Committee member David Margil said that a new campus will have 35 percent more green space.

School Committee chair Dirk Coburn said the current high school, designed by an architect from Southern California and built in 1954, is “swimming in space,” and that’s the problem. Since the school’s wings are connected by long hallways with single-pane windows, energy leaks from the building.

Margil also talked about the risk the town faces if it turns down a new high school. “I understand that renovation is an appealing option…Every year that the building exists, there’s the possibility of major catastrophic failure,” he said. “The [building authority] has looked at the options, and rejected renovation.”

Another audience member asked if there’s any way the state could renege on its commitment to Natick.

“The money’s in the bank,” said Linsky. “It has Natick’s name on it.”

School officials said they will be giving high school tours throughout the month. Dates and times will be posted on the website at http://www.natickps.org/NatickHigh/Homepage.cfm .

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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