In six weeks voters in each of the towns that comprise the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School district will decide whether to fund construction of a new school at the Harwich campus.
Community meetings with Tech Superintendent Robert Sanborn will be held later this month and in early October (see box, this page). Each town’s board of selectmen already has seen Sanborn’s presentation of the $127 million project, and reaction has been mostly positive.
But several of the towns’ finance committee members, who make spending recommendations to voters, aren’t sold on the idea yet.
A group of fincom reps from seven towns gathered recently at Dennis town hall to talk about the proposal.
Orleans Finance Committee Chairwoman Lynn Bruneau was at the Aug. 31 meeting, and she suggested that the kind of money needed for the project would be better spent on wastewater initiatives, and with Orleans building a new police station and public works facility, the Tech school might not be a priority.
James Plath, of the Dennis committee, went further, saying, “To tear down the [existing] building is almost sinful. When you walk in it looks like it was built five years ago. You’re out of your mind to tear it down.”
Tech officials said they’ve already trimmed down the cost; it originally exceeded $140 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has said it will reimburse about 32.75 percent of the cost ($41.9 million) lowering the towns’ responsibility to $86 million.
But with borrowing costs set at 5 percent (a high estimate) over 30 years, interest on bonds could push the final bill to an estimated $168 million. How much each town pays would vary depending on enrollment, and that tends to change from year to year.
Based on current enrollments, the construction debt per year is estimated at: Brewster $382,000; Eastham $133,000; Harwich $684,000, and Orleans $133,000, for example. These amounts are in addition to annual school operating costs, which also are split by the towns based on enrollment.
The district-wide ballot box vote is set for Oct. 24; Barnstable will vote earlier, on Sept. 19.
The group meeting of the fincom members was unprecedented, and the project is unique in that voters in each town have to approve the plan. If any of the district towns votes it down, the project goes back to the drawing board.
Dennis’s Peter McDowell said there had never been a capital outlay of this size without a debate or town legislative approval.
Lester Murphy, also of the Dennis contingent, agreed that “lack of significant overview,” and no appearance on any town warrants, or debate in town meetings was unusual and is causing concern.
“We need to know how to advise our taxpayers, to educate the voters to a better understanding of this project,” Murphy said.
The project does have supporters among the fincom reps.
Chatham’s Florence Seldin, a former superintendent of schools, said with growth in health and construction industries projected by the Cape Cod Commission, the Cape Tech is needed more than ever, and that enrollment might increase with a new school.
Russ French of Eastham remarked, “Bottom line. I think this is a worthy project.” He praised the Tech school as “exceedingly well run” and said it was more important than traditional high schools because many of those it educates remain in the Cape community.
Harwich’s Jon Chorey chimed in that a Tech graduate had beautifully renovated his own house.
Brewster’s Chuck DeVito said that while “Brewster is in favor of a new school, the process is the issue.”
Without a chance to review the details his town was left wondering whether and if parts of the project could be eliminated so costs could be reduced to something closer to $90 million.
“And if so what would $90 million buy you today?”
Brewster voters last year approved a $13.4 million debt exclusion for its new fire station, now under construction, Eastham is installing a multi-million-dollar municipal water system and other towns, such as Orleans and Harwich, are in the process of developing costly wastewater infrastructure systems. With those financial commitments already top of mind with voters, some fincom members wondered why the Tech can’t be renovated.
Cape Tech officials have said that the school dates from 1975 and they believe the building is out-moded and no longer suitable.
The Tech school building committee looked at renovation but found it would cost $127 million, would’ve taken four “disruptive” years, and resulted only in a modest improvement in facilities, they have said.
But Dennis’ Plath doesn’t buy it: “We just did a renovation of D-Y (Dennis Yarmouth Regional High School) that was successful.” He said students were not disturbed by the reconstruction.
Harwich seems the farthest along in planning for the vote.
The selectmen at their meeting Tuesday night were leaning toward having a separate funding vote the same day as the school vote; the ballot would ask two questions – voters will be asked whether they support the construction of the new school and whether they agree to a debt exclusion to fund Harwich’s share of the cost, $685,000.
Town Attorney John Giorgio told the selectmen that state statute allows the town to handle it that way, and town administrator Chris Clark noted that if the funding is approved on Oct. 24 it would allow the town to pay its first installment without jeopardizing other town payments.
The selectmen need to decide by Sept. 19 in order to get the questions on the ballot. A vote is scheduled for next week.
The Tech is responsible to pay for the district vote in each town, but if Harwich adds the separate funding ballot it would pay for that. Town Clerk Anita Doucette said the town’s cost would run close to $9,000, which is $6,000 to $7,000 more than her budget allows, so she said she will need extra funds.
The upcoming community meetings will include Sanborn’s presentation and question-and-answer opportunities.
Donna Tunney and Rich Eldred, and freelancers Lee Roscoe and Susan Vaughn contributed to this report.