Friday, December 20, 2002
RSC adopts two-phase plan for high school renovation
On Tuesday December 10, the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) approved a two-phase approach to undertaking and funding the $45 million high school renovation and expansion project. The decision by the RSC to phase the funding attempts to respond to the political realities associated with getting Concord and especially Carlisle voters to approve this construction project. While this phased approach was approved by the regional school committee, the hour-long discussion on this topic revealed that there are political differences within the RSC as to how best to sell the program to the public.
Michael Fitzgerald, RSC vice-chair and Carlisle representative, opened the discussion on the CCHS building renovation project. He began his presentation by stating that the space utilization study plan was "exceptional and correct." However, Fitzgerald asserted, "The difficult part is the economic reality of funding the project." He then walked the RSC through a detailed analysis entitled, "A potential approach to phasing the construction project." Fitzgerald took the space utilization study and broke it into two phases.
Phase I would address most of the classroom needs identified in the space utilization study. This phase would involve demolishing the existing industrial arts ("I") building; renovating the humanities ("H") area, science ("S"), library, and gym buildings, and the gym C wall; and constructing new science and storage buildings, expanding parking, and using modular buildings for classroom space during the phase I construction. The phase I design effort would begin in 2004 and continue into 2005. Construction would begin in 2005, and conclude in 2007. The costs, forecasted by Fitzgerald, which include an inflation factor of approximately 13.09% and a contingency factor of 10%, would total $18.950 million. The major cost items include building the new science building (approximately $9 million), and renovating the gym ($4.4 million) and the existing science building ($3.5 million).
Phase II would involve demolishing the cafeteria; renovating the auditorium ("A" building), little theater, and lower gym; and building a new cafeteria, field house, and auditorium. Phase II also includes replacing roofs, installing air conditioners, improving fire protection, and repaving driveways. The phase II design efforts would run from 2007 to 2008 and construction would run from 2008 to 2010. Total phase II costs would total $28.956 million. The major cost items include constructing the new field house ($7 million), renovating the "A" building ($6.5 million), constructing the new auditorium ($5.5 million), building the new cafeteria ($3.4 million), replacing roofs ($2.7 million), and renovating the lower gym ($1.3 million).
Funding without state aid
Once he had described how the space utilization study recommendations could be phased, Fitzgerald addressed the issue of paying for the project. Noting that state aid was "tenuous at best," he based his projections on the project receiving no state aid. Given the current economic conditions, Fitzgerald used a very conservative debt assumption of around 5% (vs. current Carlisle and Concord borrowings rates of approximately 2 - 3%). Another assumption included basing the Carlisle and Concord portion of the project's debt service on the CCHS enrollment projections through 2014, then holding enrollment constant over the remaining life of the project. Finally, he based the tax rate impact for each town on the fiscal year 2002 valuations.
If the project were to be completed all at once, as recommended by the space utilization study committee, the project would require borrowings of $44,986 million. With interest costs included, the total cost of the project would be around $70.9 million. The annual debt service associated with the project would peak at just over $4.5 million in 2008, and decline between 2.5 and 5% per year until 2027. Given Carlisle's rising high school enrollment, the town would pay just over 35% of the total project, or approximately $25 million. The tax rate impact from this project would be $1.38 per 1,000 of real estate valuation in 2008, rise to a peak of $1.54 in 2012, and decline to $0.88 in 2027. Concord's tax impact would reach a peak of $0.79 in 2008, and decline to just $0.37 in 2027.)
The two phases would take four years longer to complete and cost more in total than if the project were done as per the original plan (see table).
The politics of project
There are two steps required to gain approval for a town capital project: (1) defining what is needed, and (2) determining what the taxpayers are willing to fund. The space utilization committee presented its plan to the RSC on November 21, 2002. At that time, the RSC accepted the recommendations of the space committee as presented. Subsequently, the RSC has moved from the discussion of what is needed to a discussion of how to sell the project to the taxpayers in the two towns.
RSC chair Betsy Bilodeau stated, "[I am] excited by the space utilization committee reportIt is an outstanding plan." She acknowledged that while "the timing is difficult...At the same time, I think we have to move forward." Bilodeau seemed to accept the need for a phased approach by asserting "I have to agree, we can't do it all at once. We need to be patient. We need to try to get it passed. It is regrettable [to phase the project], but that is the reality." She then asked each RSC member to comment.
Concord member Pat Sinnott argued that Fitzgerald's analysis was "quite revealing. The savings are political, the expenditures are greater, and the total tax burden to the two towns increases under the phased approach." He stated that he is inclined to support the recommendations of the space utilization committee as presented. "There is a lot of money we will be throwing away simply to play a political game."
Fitzgerald responded, "I agree on the political point, but that is the reality. If we go for a huge bite and fail, how do we go back and fix the real problems of the school?" He stated that having gone through the "the Carlisle experience," the RSC needs to recognize the large number of proposed capital projects, the fact that both towns are already looking at overrides, and "at some point, the voters are going to say no."
Nicole Burkel, a Carlisle member of the RSC, stated that the RSC should "consider delaying this project for a year." She indicated that the project would be a very tough sell. "We may need more time before the next Town Meeting to discuss the needs of the high school with both communities."
Meg Gaudet, chair of the Concord School Committee, stated that there are "two communities to deal with, not one." She liked the original master plan the space utilization committee presented, but agreed that there is a need for community outreach. Lauren Walters, another Concord RSC member asked, "Is Carlisle a threshold issue? Is $22 million more palatable than $45 million? Or, is $22 million plus the second phase costs the same as $45 million?"
Concord School Committee member Rebecca Shannon stated, "[It is] difficult to convince people that a field house and auditorium is need in this economy." Fitzgerald commented he was concerned that without the phasing the RSC was "selling a project that won't make it." Walters wondered, "If Concord or Carlisle chokes, will we do it?" He asked Fitzgerald if the Carlisle FinCom and selectmen would support the phased approach. "I have lost my crystal ball," Fitzgerald responded. Deirdre Farrell, CCHS Business Manager, reiterated that if either Concord or Carlisle did not approve the project at Town Meeting, the project would stop.
Sinnott said he believes that citizens are smart. "We need to talk to people and let them know there are no real cost savings from splitting the project...[I hope] the headline will read 'Two towns come together on a great program'....The project has big numbers altogether, but it won't have a significant impact on property taxes."
Bilodeau outlined the three options the RSC could take, and asked for a point of view on which each member favored. Option 1 was to move forward with the entire design funds [and, implicitly, a single project] now. This option was favored by Sinnott and Walters. Option 2 was to move forward with design funds for a portion of the project now [and, implicitly, a phased project approach]. This approach was favored by Fitzgerald, Shannon, Bilodeau, and Gaudet. Option 3 was to not move on the project this year. This option was favored by Burkel.
Bilodeau asked for a resolution to request the selectmen to approve a Town Meeting Warrant article for $2.3 million in RSC debt to fund the design services, consultants, bids, and any other related costs associated with first phase of a CCHS renovation and expansion project. The motion passed, with only Nicole Burkel voting against.
Two key questions briefly surfaced during the RSC discussions, but were not explicitly addressed. First, do the taxpayers of Carlisle and Concord understand and support the needs established in the space utilization study? While many citizens recognize that the high school facility is old and poorly designed for New England, this does not necessarily mean that there is acceptance of all the improvements identified. Because the program needs identified by the space utilization committee were not prioritized, and were presented and accepted by the RSC during a single meeting, the public may neither understand nor agree with the entirety of the identified program needs. Can and should the RSC move forward without first securing greater public support for the program needs?
Second, is the purpose of the phased approach to prioritize the program needs, or is it solely to make the project appear more affordable to the public? If the purpose is to create some prioritization, then are the phases independent of each other? And, if so, is the public likely to approve only the first phase of the project? If the purpose is to make the funding more attractive to voters, are the increased costs associated with the total two phase approach a reasonable price to pay in order to lower the tax rate impact in years 2005-2011?
There were no Carlisle residents in the audience.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito