The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 17, 2009


Time to vote on school improvements

On May 4, Town Meeting will be asked to approve $450,000 for schematic designs of a replacement of the 50-year-old Spalding Building as well as renovations to other buildings on the Carlisle School campus. Once the designs are completed, voters will be asked to approve construction, with the total project estimated to cost $20 million. It’s a big project for a small town, but voters should give serious consideration to the proposal for two reasons.

First, the Spalding Building has seen better days and the quality of the original construction was not exceptionally high. There are problems with the roof, leaking foundation, poor insulation and student bathrooms which are not handicapped-accessible. The building could be repaired for roughly $6 million. However, the School Building Committee (SBC) recommends replacing it with a new energy-efficient building that will better serve the educational needs of the students.

Second, the state has provided verbal assurance that it will provide 40% reimbursement for agreed-upon work, including the schematic designs. In this case, the final project cost to Carlisle residents would be about $12 million.

Could Spalding be replaced for less than $20 million? Yes. According to the SBC presentation last December (see: the project includes $6 million in renovations and repairs to other buildings on campus. While some repairs will be needed right away no matter what happens, additional work has been folded into the project to take advantage of the state’s 40% reimbursement offer.

The current project is a compromise. In June, 2007 the school considered three options ranging in price from $13 to $28 million. There is always a temptation to include more improvements, but town officials have urged capping the project at $20 million, a figure they believe is affordable. Town Treasurer and SBC member Larry Barton points out that the final price will not be known until after the design work is finished and the project goes out to bid.

Even though not driven by enrollment growth, an upgrade to the school campus would be very useful. It has been over ten years since the Grant Building was built and over 20 years since construction of the Corey Building. Since then, there have been changes in state educational guidelines and the school’s curriculum. A school renovation would provide new spaces to better meet these needs.

Everyone should keep an eye on the full cost, even though the initial vote is only for the design work. Barton has estimated that a $20 million project with 40% reimbursement would add up to $700 more per year in taxes for the average homeowner once construction gets underway. It may be difficult for those hit by the recession or on fixed incomes to afford this large a tax hike, and it seems unfair to ask them to support a project any larger than necessary. For this reason, the school should consider scaling back the project if the economy continues to worsen.

However, it makes sense to go forward now. The state is offering a generous reimbursement rate. Given the state’s serious financial difficulties, it is very possible that a lower rate would be offered in the future if the project is voted down and delayed. In addition, starting the project now may allow the town to save a significant amount of money in this favorable bidding environment. It would also give the project a head start on a possible high school renovation, reducing the number of years tax bills carry a double burden.

The Finance Committee and Selectmen have both voted to support Warrant Article 11 to fund schematic designs. The school needs renovation and it is important to allow the design process to get underway. That said, if you have concerns about the project, share them with town officials in the next few months so that your ideas may be considered as the final building project designs take shape. ∆

Case study: Carlisle School Committee 2009

Okay, let’s get into role: you’re teaching an MBA-level class on “Management for Not-For-Profits,” and today’s case is “Carlisle School Committee 2009.” You cold-call a strong student to start. She says, “Carlisle is a small affluent suburb of Boston with a very good K-8 school system and a regionalized high school in Concord next door, also pretty good. Like everyone they face terrible budget problems.” “What’s the case decision?” you ask. “They’re leaning toward firing eight non-teaching staff, having no local Superintendent, and paying part of the costs of similar staff in Concord to manage Carlisle’s needs part-time.” You ask, “Should they?” A guy says, “At first they said they’d save $800,000, then they said $350,000 of that might be needed for the Concord staff.” You ask, “Is the $450K left still credible?” He says flatly, “No, here’s why. First, the $800,000 comes out of nowhere, it’s stated prior to doing a study. Second, the Concord people aren’t part-time now – they work full jobs, you’re going to have to hire on much of the manpower you’re firing. Third, that $350,000 might come from a cost-sharing formula with Carlisle paying some percent of salaries for people in Concord – but we don’t know if it shakes out as less or more. Exhibit 4” (Mosquito, March 27, page 9) “quotes studies showing these moves don’t save the promised money.” He pauses. “Anything else?” A normally quiet woman: “Carlisle staff somehow keeps these incredibly expensive Special Ed out-of-system placements to 17%. The committee plans to fire her and use Concord people who out-place 41%: three times as much. That’s going to be astronomical.” You look around. The class wiseguy says, “It sounds like this guy Dave Flannery can repair anything on campus using his teeth and his toes – the School Committee wants to fire him to pay guys from Concord who are going to need a map to find Carlisle and can then inquire where the circuit breakers might be.” You ask, “Okay, have we hit the main points?” A student answers, “You can’t quantify it but the Carlisle School seems special, stuff like Systems Thinking, bottom-up involvement of staff in planning, innovative curriculum. People are worried about policies and direction from a part-time superintendent whose assumptions and main focus has to be Concord, a different and much bigger town.” You ask, “What about stakeholders?” Head shake: “Board of Selectmen doesn’t like it; neither does Finance Committee; neither do parents. Two very different Selectmen, Stevenson and Hult, are both against moving so fast on this. Finance Committee also seems to agree it’s too fast.”

Okay, back out of role: it’s clear our School Committee is divided 3-2, repeating and repeating that they have to move very very fast while knowledgeable people in town are telling them, “No, this is big, you don’t have to move this fast, let’s do this right.” The real “cost savings” are questionable.

School Committee members, listen: Go to Town Meeting. The town may agree or disagree with you there, but this town has to be together, not treated like dumb people who don’t belong at the decision table, and not torn apart. There are no enemies here – you’re us, we’re us, the town is us. Get your wagons out of your tight little hunkered-down perimeter. Stop repeating to everyone, “Well, we’re not legally required to take this to the town.” Let Town Meeting talk and be together and behind whatever you do. If you can’t get town support, why would you even want to do this?

Ed note: The author served on the Carlisle School Committee from 1998 to 2004.


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