The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 5, 2008

When’s the best time to build a new school?

Economist and former Selectman John Ballantine recommended postponing the Carlisle School building project for a few months when he spoke last week to both the town’s Financial Team (FinTeam) meeting and the Board of Selectmen.

Currently scheduled for January 12, the Special Town Meeting is needed to authorize roughly half a million dollars for design work for the proposal to replace the Spalding School Building and renovate other school facilities. The rest of the roughly $20 million project would be authorized later on. The town is applying for partial reimbursement for the project from the state.

“It’s not as bad as 1989 and 1990 when we had over 10% unemployment,” Ballantine said at the FinTeam meeting after presenting data describing the state and national fall-out from the banking crisis, but he added, “There are surprises out there that people are worried about.” Ballantine felt that the school project would more easily win approval if it were brought to Town Meeting after stock market volatility lessens and public confidence rebounds. Reaction to his idea was mixed and several at the FinTeam meeting reviewed the pros and cons.

Chair of the Board of Selectmen Doug Stevenson, also a member of the School Building Committee (SBC), thought it more likely the project would be delayed if the town does not receive needed information from the state, rather than because of the financial outlook. (The state has not yet provided written verification of enrollment predictions, designer selection or reimbursement.) Stevenson said, “The economy may be as bad or worse in March.”

Selectman John Williams wondered, “When are banks going to start lending?”

Stevenson said that construction costs will not be voted until many months after the design funding is approved, and by that time the economy “may hopefully be trending better.” He added, “Now may be a good time to kick it off.”

Treasurer and Finance Director Larry Barton said that reimbursement by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) “may be critical” for the viability of the project. MSBA receives funding through the state sales tax, and revenues are down as consumers reduce spending, noted Carlisle School Business Manager Heidi Zimmerman, who said that Carlisle is near the head of the line for new project funding from MSBA. She said, “Right now there’s a pot of money. It may not be there later.”

Barton replied, “If there’s a negative vote [at Special Town Meeting], Carlisle may go to the end of the line.” Zimmerman said the School Building Committee plans to ask MSBA about that point.

Stevenson noted and others agreed that the town could not postpone a vote indefinitely. However, Zimmerman felt that postponing the vote a couple of months would probably not be a problem for MSBA. Barton guessed that if it were delayed longer, MSBA might eventually request a vote, and give the town a chance to comply, before dropping the school from the reimbursement application list.

Ballantine felt there remained “huge uncertainty” in the economy, “but by the spring, we’ll know which way things are going.”

The Selectmen plan to close the Warrant and finalize the date for the Special Town Meeting at their meeting on December 9. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito