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33WVN #33: Many questions/unknowns about state $$ for new high school

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  • waylandvoters2
    Sep 1, 2004
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      Wayland Voters Network
      September 1, 2004

      Dear Wayland Voter:

      Many questions, many unknowns -- that sums up the August 26 public
      forum on the high school project. (Forum will be broadcast tonight,
      Sept. 1, Wayland Cable Channel, 7pm.)

      Wayland residents asked many questions about the High School Building
      Committee's plan for a new $55.5 million complex, but there were few
      definite answers.

      Perhaps the clearest answer from anyone came from Jeff Stearns of the
      state treasurer's office, who said definitively that state aid for
      new school projects is not guaranteed.

      The HSBC's proposal assumes state aid of more than $18 million.

      At the forum, residents asked the HSBC for estimates of the project's
      impact on homeowners' taxes. As before, HSBC members refused, saying
      consultations with other bodies including the Finance Committee must
      come first. (The next Finance Committee meeting is Sept. 13.)

      When member Josh Bekenstein said that the HSBC didn't want to issue
      an estimated tax impact that could turn out to be incorrect, a
      resident emphasized that what is being asked for is simply that -- an
      estimate. Still, Bekenstein refused to offer an estimate.

      In terms of the project's design, readers of WVN newsletters would
      have discovered little new in the forum presentations from the
      committee, HMFH Architects and Turner Construction Co. The committee
      explained why it chose `Option 3,' a plan that replaces all existing
      buildings on the high school campus, except the field house, with one
      new building (abandoning the campus-style school).

      One resident asked why the committee chose an architect and a project
      manager to create three options instead of considering competing
      firms. Chair Lea Anderson said the process followed state guidelines
      and that alternatives would have been too costly.

      HMFH made it clear that many design decisions remain open. Spokesmen
      responded generally but positively when a WHS graduate suggested that
      for safety reasons the new building should try to duplicate the quick
      exits possible from the existing buildings. And when asked whether
      the new complex really needs large computer labs just when desktop
      computers may be approaching extinction, they said they were
      reassessing technical needs.

      If you have been looking at the details on the HSBC website and
      wondering whether the school needs such things as several 100-square-
      foot rooms for office copiers, the answer seems to be `yes' according
      to the educational program, and `maybe not' because little if
      anything has been designed in detail.

      How the project would be paid for seems just as indefinite.

      First, some background: The state still owes cities and towns
      (including Wayland) about $5.5 billion for about 750 school projects
      already begun or completed. (Preceding figures reported by the
      Boston Globe.) The state stopped taking applications for new
      projects last year while legislators decided how to create a
      sustainable mechanism for assisting school construction in the
      state's 351 municipalities. Legislation signed in July calls for a
      new governing authority with new rules, specifies where the money
      will come from, and ends the moratorium on applications for new
      projects beginning July 1, 2007, when new applications will be
      accepted.

      The legislation contains ambiguities (for example, the length of
      school building loans), and will create an entirely new body to
      consider applications and distribute the money. And before mid-2007
      the state plans to pay off about $6 billion owed to municipalities
      for 425 projects that were approved before the moratorium on new
      projects took effect.

      At the forum, Deputy Treasurer Stearns said that after the state
      begins accepting new applications it plans to disburse $500 million
      annually, adjusting the total in future years for inflation. That
      amount would support about 28 projects the size of Wayland's, or many
      fewer projects involving larger, less affluent communities that would
      receive reimbursement from the state at a higher percentage than
      Wayland.

      Will there be a huge number of applicants, and how costly will they
      be for the state? Stearns said it's difficult to predict because
      many towns might have moved quickly to get their applications in
      before the moratorium. Under the rules in effect before the
      moratorium, percentages of reimbursement were higher than they will
      be beginning in 2007.

      In any case, if an application is denied, the municipality is allowed
      to reapply the following year. Exactly how the process would work is
      unclear at this point, but it suggests that there could be a greater
      possibility of being denied aid than under the old rules.

      Asked whether towns that begin projects before July 2007 would have
      an advantage, Stearns replied that it will be up to the new
      Massachusetts School Building Authority. But nothing in the law
      suggests either an advantage or a disadvantage, he said.

      Another possibly complicating factor is that the state plans a
      statewide assessment of school needs, something that Stearns said
      hasn't been done in many years. Under both the old and new formulas
      for building aid, poorer districts generally receive more aid than
      richer districts.

      In addition, the Supreme Judicial Court is considering an argument
      that Massachusetts is unconstitutionally underfunding education for
      students in the poorest communities. Though not related directly to
      criteria for building aid, that concern could be in the air as the
      new Building Authority is chosen and begins its work.

      NEXT HSBC MEETING: Thursday, September 9, Town Building, School
      Committee Room, 7:30pm.

      Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to your
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      at (508) 358-9171.

      Wayland Voters Network
      Margo Melnicove, Chair
      Michael Short, Treasurer