Friday, November 16, 2001
All options on the table for school expansion
School Building Assistance funds harder to get
Carlisle School Building Committee members had asked officials from the state School Building Assistance program (SBA) to come to Carlisle hoping to get specific guidance on what site options for a school expansion project would or would not be favored or funded by SBA. Eric Gunn and John Lawler, both from the SBA, would not rule out, or recommend, any of the options being suggested for the expansion of the Carlisle School to accommodate increasing enrollment. The town needs to study all the options and come up with a plan that is the best solution for the community and one that the town can agree on, Gunn emphasized. Then the town will need to advocate for its plan as well as submit all required documents to the SBA before a decision is made whether to put the project on the list for funding, Gunn added.
Recent changes in the SBA may make it more difficult for Carlisle to get state reimbursement for new school building projects. New priorities and reduced funding at the state level will mean that fewer projects will be funded than in the recent past, Gunn and Lawler told school and town officials at a meeting on November 7. Because the SBA budget has been cut in half in the most recent state budget proposal, even projects that are already approved for funding may not see reimbursement for more than five years, Lawler said.
The State Department of Education provides financial assistance to cities and towns for construction, major repairs and renovations of school buildings through the SBA program. If a school project has a high enough priority that it makes the SBA list, then the town is guaranteed reimbursement at a rate that depends on the wealth of the town. If a Carlisle project were to make the list, the reimbursement from SBA would be 50 percent of the costs, Lawler said. The time it would take for the money to start coming in could be up to seven or more years after approval, depending on funding of the SBA in the state budget, he added.
Lawler outlined the current status of the SBA list, saying that there are now 290 projects on the list already approved for reimbursement. Because the SBA budget was cut from $50 million to $25 million, only half of the projects slated for funding this year will receive it. The other half will be pushed out until next year and the rest will have to wait even longer. It would take $300 million to fund all of the projects on the list right now, Lawler said.
New applications will be prioritized according to guidelines just issued by the SBA. (Details can be found on the Web at http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/sbuilding/admin_adv06.html). The highest priority goes to projects that will repair or replace buildings that are unsafe. The second priority goes to projects that will eliminate existing severe (25 percent over capacity) overcrowding. Third in priority are projects to prevent loss of accreditation. Carlisle may fall into the fourth priority category; projects to prevent future overcrowding based on enrollment projections that show a need for 30 percent more space. Lawler suggested that this level of overcrowding would need to be reached within 10 years to qualify for this priority level. The fifth priority is given to projects that deal with short-term enrollment growth. The number of new projects going onto the list will be limited, Lawler said, so the SBA will try to let the community know early in the cycle if their project is likely to make the list.
In addition to new construction, major repair projects, such as roof replacement, are also eligible for SBA reimbursement, Lawler said. More such repair projects will be approved for funding now than in the past to correct the problem of repairs being postponed until a major construction project was needed, he said. Carlisle will be able to apply for assistance for upcoming roof replacements on older buildings even if it is also on the list for a new construction project, Lawler said.
All options open
School building committee members at the meeting, Paul Morrison, Beth Hambleton, and school business manager Eileen Riley, tried to get specific guidance on site options. In the past, superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson said, previous SBA officials had made statements to the effect that the SBA would not allow any more than 900 students on the current campus site and they had definite ideas about other things they would not allow. This time, however, there were no specific recommendations from Gunn or Lawler. They would not rule out the possibility of adding to the present campus site or adding multi-story buildings. Their suggestion was to study all the options carefully and then decide what would work best for the town. They were also open to creative solutions such as using parking spaces at the congregational church or allowing extra community space (a larger gym or auditorium, for example) if the extra space were funded privately or through taxes but without SBA reimbursement.
Finance committee chair Tony Allison expressed concern that it would be difficult to manage the debt of the town because of the uncertainty of the reimbursement. Gunn responded, "There is always a risk that funding won't come. If you really need it [space], you do it anyway."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito