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WVN #65: Interview with Head of School Building Reimbursement Agency

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  • waylandvoters2
    Wayland Voters Network January 24, 2005 Dear Wayland Voter, In a recent letter to the Town Crier, an officer of the Building the Future PAC says, It is likely
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 24, 2005
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      Wayland Voters Network
      January 24, 2005

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      In a recent letter to the Town Crier, an officer of the Building the
      Future PAC says, "It is likely that Wayland will receive substantial
      reimbursement from the state for the High School project." The letter
      was reproduced in handouts distributed in some Wayland neighborhoods
      over the weekend. Read the interview below with the executive
      director of the new school building reimbursement agency and make up
      your own mind.

      STATE OFFICIAL: "UNLESS YOU'RE PREPARED TO PAY FOR IT YOURSELF..."

      The School Committee predicts that the state will contribute $18-21
      million toward the $57.3 million high school project. That 32 to 37
      percent of the projected cost would make a big difference to
      taxpayers.

      How likely is it?

      The School Committee notes that Wayland has never been refused
      reimbursement for school projects. Other towns can make a similar
      claim. But that is irrelevant, according to the executive director of
      the new Massachusetts School Building Authority, Katherine P.
      Craven. When the MSBA begins accepting applications in July 2007,
      the entire process will be radically different.

      Because of that, Ms. Craven offers this general advice to those
      thinking of building before applying for aid: "Unless you're
      prepared to pay for it yourself," be very thoughtful.

      Formal guidance issued by MSBA warns those proceeding with
      construction now that they "must consider the possibility that the
      MSBA may disapprove reimbursement of the project."

      After familiarizing herself with the Wayland plans, Ms. Craven said
      that Wayland officials think it's a good idea to use the
      reimbursement moratorium to plan for the future. There's no problem
      with that, she says, "as long as everyone involved at the local level
      understands that there are no guarantees of funding from the new
      Authority for any projects submitted in July 2007, and understands
      the extreme pressure on the Authority's revenue stream..."

      As an independent authority, the MSBA is designed to "take politics
      out of the process," says Ms. Craven. MSBA has a mandate to create a
      new agency, under the state treasurer, with new people and a new
      mission. In a break with the defunct former system, the MSBA promises
      stringent formal standards, backed by data and administered by newly
      hired professionals, to determine how to distribute grants fairly to
      cities and towns. Under the former system, a town could get on the
      reimbursement list simply by authorizing a project.

      Wayland officials frequently argue for being "first in line" when the
      money begins flowing again.

      In a recent phone interview, Ms. Craven said, "The old culture of
      getting on the list doesn't apply."

      Massachusetts declared a moratorium on reimbursement in 2003 when the
      previous system proved unsustainable. The state is still slowly
      paying a share of hundreds of school projects costing a total of
      about $6 billion.

      The MSBA plans to issue a draft of new regulations early in 2006 and
      a final version at mid-year.

      "It's impossible to say what the new regulations will be," Ms. Craven
      said.

      The designers of the Wayland project say they have a good idea of the
      requirements and would be able to make changes late in the process to
      conform to the final version. Existing documentation gives towns some
      of the information needed to plan ahead.

      If the former system resembled a gravy train driven with a light
      hand, the MSBA ideal is presented as a rigorous, heavily supervised
      and sustainable process. Ms. Craven emphasized that grants will be
      based on "demonstrated need," not simply getting in line.

      Before the MSBA issues new reimbursement regulations it will hold
      hearings in five regions of the state to determine school building
      needs. Under the previous system, the state collected little data and
      exercised little oversight. (For example, it isn't entirely clear yet
      how many school buildings there are in Massachusetts.) The MSBA plans
      to send inspectors to verify the needs of applicants.

      It's not yet clear what the state might do if it finds dilapidated or
      unsafe schools in towns so fiscally strapped that they can't afford
      to pay their share of the cost of replacement.

      Needs will be assessed under a hierarchy of criteria, Ms. Craven
      said. For example, a school that is unsound or unsafe would take
      priority over one that is merely overcrowded, or facing enrollment
      increases or a loss of accreditation. Other factors rank below those.

      The new law that created the MSBA provides a stream of money from a
      share of the state sales tax and allows grants totaling up to $500
      million in the first year after July 2007. Remember the "up to," Ms.
      Craven advised.

      Wayland Superintendent Gary Burton says his survey shows that only
      three dozen districts now have plans to apply in the first two years,
      and therefore there should be more than enough money to accommodate
      Wayland's plan.

      But Ms. Craven says it's conceivable that all of the grant money in
      the first year could go to schools that are falling apart. It's also
      possible, she said, that some of the money would be used to help
      clear the backlog of reimbursement for previously approved projects.

      This is not a matter of "he's right" or "she's right." It's too soon
      to tell.

      "Funds will be available to reimburse on this project," the Wayland
      School Committee says. That is true, but it doesn't mean that the
      state would have to subsidize a project simply because money remains
      in the account. New standards and oversight are meant to make it
      impossible for schools to receive reimbursement without convincing
      evidence of demonstrated need.

      Proponents of the project frequently talk about reimbursement of 40
      percent and more without explaining what that means. The Wayland plan
      assumes that, because of standards on square footage per student, the
      amount on which reimbursement would be based is limited to about $46
      million. Information mailed to Wayland voters by the High School
      Building Committee shows reimbursement of 40 to 46 percent of that
      amount -- $18.6-21.4 million.

      Wayland taxpayers would thus pay $35.9-$38.7 million (63-68 percent
      of the cost, not including interest). They would also pay 100 percent
      of any cost overruns.

      In handouts distributed in some Wayland neighborhoods over the
      weekend, three former selectmen recommended a yes vote on Jan. 25.
      The school projects they presided over were different from the one at
      hand in at least two critical ways: Before ground was broken a budget
      was established and state reimbursement was guaranteed. The new high
      school project would be nearly half built before Wayland could apply
      for reimbursement.

      On Tuesday Wayland voters will have to assess risks versus
      opportunities without having information that was available when the
      town approved earlier projects.

      Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to your
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      Wayland Voters Network
      Margo Melnicove, Chair
      Michael Short, Treasurer
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