Friday, May 20, 2005
We must approve the three-million dollar flush
It would be hard to imagine a more tortuous building project than the wastewater treatment facility for the Carlisle School. It has been nine years since the existing school septic system failed a Title 5 inspection in 1996, at the time of the school link building expansion. Since then the school has been operating by pumping its septic tank monthly at a cost of $1,000, a situation which the state will not tolerate forever.
Back in 1996, when replacement of the septic system was expected to cost a "whopping" $500,000, the project was delayed first by several years of litigation, then by more years of searching for the perfect town-owned site, inexpensive to develop and far from litigious abutters.
In the meantime, the world changed. School enrollments grew and the septic system became a wastewater treatment plant. Ka-ching. In 2003 the project cost increased to $1.3M, a figure that the town approved with a near-unanimous vote. But before construction could start, the world turned again.
Last year, the Romney administration established a new Massachusetts School Building Authority (SBA), under the state treasurer, which assumed responsibility for the earlier Department of Education School Building Assistance Bureau (SBAB). However, the new organization was slow in staffing and even slower in establishing new rules for school construction projects.
Last fall, after construction bids on the wastewater plant were already received, the building committee learned that any school projects which cost over $1.5 million must first hire a project manager before hiring the construction company. Ka-ching, ka-ching. And in the past few days, another expensive wrinkle has emerged (See page 1). Another ka-ching. The only good news is that the SBA continues to say that they will honor the 60% reimbursement promise made in 1996.
It has been a project that no one can love. We will spend close to $3 million with no tangible rewards or improvements — no new classrooms that enhance teaching or playgrounds the kids can enjoy. The new flush will be just a flush.
But after nine years we must face a few painful facts. The wastewater problem will not go away; the school cannot exist without a legal way to handle sewage. Costs inevitably increase with time, so it does not pay to spend time looking for bargains. Most of all, we cannot afford to lose the promised 60% reimbursement. The current SBA reimbursement rate is likely to be half that number. It is mandatory that we approve the necessary funding now.
Therefore, at Town Meeting next Monday, we must approve the additional sums requested by the School Building Committee and pray that construction can finally go forward. If spending close to $3M is painful, let's try to remember how much money we have saved over the nine years of monthly pumping, and maybe it won't hurt so much.
Things fall apart
Like many frugal families back in the '50s, we protected the living room furniture with sheets of shiny, transparent plastic. When I was a child, this didn't strike me as odd. Most people we knew did the same. I suppose because we were more frugal than most, the covers stayed on even when we had company. My early memories of Sunday visits include, in addition to the feigned interest in adult conversation, the smooth, stiff (and, in the summer, sticky) feel of plastic on the back of my legs. The shielding did the trick — even with five children and innumerable cousins in and out of the house, the stylish gold upholstery so popular with 1950s newlyweds still shone, 20 years later, as bright as the frosted yellow layers on a box of Betty Crocker cake mix.
With the questioning of authority and recklessness that dawns on us in adolescence, I began to wonder whether we really needed this much protection. So when I became one of a short list of high school sophomores being considered for a student exchange program, I decided that when the selection committee representative came to our house for the family interview, the covers would go. The appointed day came, and my parents and I escorted a high-ranking community official impeccably dressed in a crisp, dark navy blue skirt and jacket to the living room sofa, glowing in its nakedness. At the end of a pleasant hour, the woman stood up, and I politely stepped aside to allow her to proceed to the front door. To my horror, I saw the back of her suit was completely flocked with bright yellow fuzzies, the accumulation of 20 years of upholstery lint, which had attached themselves to her suit with the Darwinian urgency of tiny burrs that finally had the chance to hitchhike on a host and propagate.
I wasn't chosen for the exchange program. Nevertheless, I remember the ordeal with affection. After I closed the door behind the interviewer's furry golden back, with my heart sunk in anticipation of rejection, I caught my father's eye and we burst out laughing. The couch may have fallen apart, we may not have passed the interview, but no matter what curveballs we were thrown from the outside world, we could count on each other for love and support. In today's parlance, our core values remained intact.
This story comes to mind as I see Carlisle struggling with change. Twenty years from now, I hope we conclude that it was not necessary to encase in plastic what we cherished in order to save it. All change isn't destructive; ironically, an unwillingness to change may prove to be the quicker road to destruction. I hope we can say that we worked to preserve the core of what is valuable about our shared lives in Carlisle — an openness to diversity, a respect for compromise, a trust that leaders are working in the best interest of the town as a whole. With all due respect to Yeats, even if it seems that things are falling apart, the center can hold.
© 2005 The