Friday, January 10, 2003
Selectmen struggle with capital expansion plans for Carlisle school and CCHS
The selectmen and FinCom on December 17 heard updates on the Carlisle School wastewater treatment plant and building feasibility study.
Wastewater treatment plant
The Carlisle School's wastewater treatment plant, expected to cost $1.2 to $1.3 million, will likely be ready for a vote on funds appropriation at the Fall Town Meeting. School Building Committee chair Paul Morrison noted the hydrogeological firm GZA has completed its draft report on siting the plant on the Banta-Davis Land and has determined it is feasible. Once the design is complete, state approval and bidding stages will require another eight months. An update on progress will be presented at the Spring Town Meeting.
Carlisle school expansion
The Carlisle Public School expansion, expected to cost between $12 and $15 million, is in the early-design phase. The architectural firm SMMA has offered a plan for expanding on the current site, and in January will begin designing an alternate plan on the Banta-Davis Land. It will then be possible to compare the costs of construction and operation and determine which site is optimal.
Morrison noted the firm has done "a good creative job meeting our requirements on limited space." He says the committee "wants to feel secure on the wastewater treatment" on which the expansion depends before proceeding further. Of concern is the possibility of a legal challenge such as the one that held up a previous plan for a septic system at the school. On the other hand, the committee would like to move ahead. Said Morrison, "The school is crowded now, and there will be a 36-month lead time (from start to completion) once we pull the trigger." A presentation is planned for the Spring Town Meeting.
Responding to a question regarding state funding, Morrison noted, "We won't know the SBAB (School Building Assitance Bureau funds) percentage until we get in line, after detailed plans are complete." It was hoped the project would be viewed as part of the last school expansion, which included a septic system never built, but "the plan may have changed too much." Since that time, SBAB funding percentages have dropped considerably, leading selectman Vivian Chaput to suggest that "given the extra costs from standards that are excessive (to meet state requirements), maybe we should go it alone" and forgo state funding. Morrison said the committee will look at the possibility, adding, "I don't get the sense this is an overly state-standard-driven process." The committee will also look at modular classrooms, but, noted Morrison, "The real concern is the core facility — the gym, cafeteria, and play space."
High school plan raises many questions
A presentation by the regional school committee (RSC) to the Carlisle Board of Selectmen on December 17, with members of the FinCom present, exposed considerable misalignment between the RSC's plan for an eventual $45 million high school renovation and expansion and the board's assessment of what Carlisle can afford. The high school hopes to move ahead with its $19 million Phase I proposal (see "RSC adopts two-phase plan" December 17) of which approximately $6 million would be borne by Carlisle.
Mike Fitzgerald of the RSC pointed to crying needs at the high school: "The 'I' building doesn't suit any part of the program . . . the science facilities are inadequate . . . the auditorium is 42 years old — the seats can't be repaired, the curtains don't close, and the side seating is gone . . . the locker rooms are nasty. . . ." Noting the cafeteria is 40 years old, he added, "Imagine having a kitchen that hadn't been redone in 40 years that has 1,200 students walking through it each day!"
Phase I addresses some needs
Fitzgerald outlined the Phase I plan which will include demolition of the "I" (industrial arts) building to make room for a new science building, addition of six modular classrooms and 135 new parking spaces, and renovations to add to or improve the gym building, the library, SPED classrooms, and guidance offices. The hope is that $2.3 million in funds will be approved in 2003 so a two-year design phase can commence in 2004 and construction begin in 2005 for completion in 2007. A phase II plan costing $26 million would follow.
RSC told "don't plan on Phase II"
Chair John Ballantine noted, "Your timing couldn't be worse" given the slow economy and the wastewater treatment and expansion requirements at the Carlisle School. "All three projects eat up our debt capacity — there's room for nothing else." He noted the high school should ensure all priorities are covered in Phase I, adding, "I suspect there isn't a Phase II. Once this is approved we won't make any other capital expenditures for at least 10 years." This would put off indefinitely any plans for the cafeteria or auditorium, which are not addressed in Phase I.
Fitzgerald agreed the timing was off, but "we can't just stop dead in the water." He noted the modular classrooms are needed soon and "the economy will rebound." Added RSC chair Betsy Bilodeau, "We can't predict where the economy is going over the next 20 years, but we know what we need to do now."
Fitzgerald also presented an analysis of the cost of servicing the debt for just Phase I, indicating Carlisle's share will peak at approximately $600,000 per year. The yearly median cost per household will be $357.86 at the peak in 2012, decreasing gradually to approximately $200 per household by 2027. As Concord has a lower percentage of high school students per population, the median cost per household in that town would be $195.56 at the peak. FinCom member Lisa Jensen-Fellows noted the figures did not include increased operating costs with school expansion and Fitzgerald agreed to present estimates at a future meeting.
Facility size questioned
Selectman Doug Stevenson, a CCHS graduate, questioned the need for a bigger facility. Based on information supplied by Fitzgerald, the CCHS population at the same school was 1,475 students in 1976 versus 1,208 students today, with growth expected to top out at 1,250 in 2009. Said Stevenson, "I'm uncomfortable with the much greater need for space per student," since his expectation was that requirements would decrease as the school eliminated space-consuming industrial arts programs in favor of more desk-oriented academic subjects.
Fitzgerald, also a CCHS graduate, noted a much higher percentage of students (95% now versus 65% then) pursue a college prep track, resulting in a higher course load per student. In addition, the "open classroom" concept popular in the '70s is dead, "so you don't have the off-site campus at Friendly's and Brigham's anymore." Bilodeau pointed to SPED inclusion and computer use as two other drivers of added space, as is expansion of the performing and creative arts which are much more popular.
What are the priorities?
Selectman Vivian Chaput suggested the RSC should look harder at prioritizing instead of accepting the entire project as defined by the space-utilization committee. "What are desires versus real needs?" she asked. Pointing to the photo lab as an example, she added, "Is it important enough to be spending all this money on? Somebody's got to take a real good look at the needs versus the wants."
Fitzgerald agreed the community at large is not entirely on-board with accepting the whole plan, noting the addition of a field house was a particular "lightning rod." Bilodeau countered that CCHS's physical plant is inferior to schools of similar quality, "Schools around us have facilities very disparate from what we have. If you don't offer a full program (including photography,) you put your students at a disadvantage." Noting that some CCHS sports teams must go home to change due to the lack of facilities, she added, "You can always make do. The question is where do we want to be with our kids?"
Ballantine agreed, "We're a wealthy community now and we want more for our kids." But pointing again to the heavy debt burden if the towns bear the entire cost, he asked, "Have you considered a foundation to raise funds?" Responded Fitzgerald, "Where does public support of public education begin and end?" He pointed to Lincoln/Sudbury as an example of a regional school district that has approved a $72 million project to rebuild its high school.
Should design funds go on the ballot?
More disagreement surfaced when Fitzgerald put forward the committee's proposal for financing the design for phase I. The plan is to gain approval at both the Concord and Carlisle Spring Town Meetings for $2.3 million in short-term borrowing. This would be absorbed into the long-term bond when the $19 million project is approved.
Ballantine objected that this process would circumvent a ballot vote on the $2.3 million. "There's an issue of due process. We want voters to vote on a project (before it gets underway) and we want it to be a ballot vote." He added another concern that if the $19 million project doesn't pass, the $2.3 million already approved cannot be financed long-term and will have to be paid out of the high school's operating budget.
Fitzgerald expressed surprise at these objections. "It's been done that way before," he noted, adding that the RSC won't know the scope of the project until after the design phase is complete.
Planning process questioned
"We need to assess . . . just how gold-plated is this?" said Jensen-Fellows after the RSC members left the meeting. FinCom member Tony Allison pointed to the short time the school committee took to come up with the phased plan and noted, "Their priorities aren't clear. Why $18 million? Why not $10 or $25 million?" Suspecting insufficient analysis had gone into the plan, Allison suggested, "We need a mini due-diligence team."
Larry Bearfield of the Carlisle Citizens for Limited Taxation noted the space-utilization committee emphasized they "scoured the country for best practices . . . with no budget limitations." He suggested, "Maybe we need to start over and work to budget." FinCom member Deb Belanger also questioned whether any attempt had been made to look at ways of cutting costs. "How much do teacher's contracts drive up construction costs?" she asked, noting that some classrooms are currently empty half the day.
Fincom chair Larry Barton struggled with how to provide input to the RSC, "We're not in a position to say you must prioritize, do this work or that work" the way the selectmen and Fincom can with town committees. Ballantine emphasized the importance of finding a way, "The CPS (school expansion project) could easily be squeezed out if we don't watch it." Added Belanger, "It would be sad to see the high school not get important renovations because they asked for too much."
Stevenson suggested forming a committee to do a hard evaluation of the plan and provide feedback. This suggestion will be taken up in January.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito