Friday, April 9, 2010
The real costs of our new schools
At Monday night’s Special Town Meeting Tim Hult, chair of the Board of Selectmen, reported on the annual per-household cost to taxpayers for the $13 million debt for the Carlisle School building project. For the “typical” median home, payments will peak at about $597 in 2015, then fall to about $300 over the next 25 years. That this is so much lower than many feared is due to the prudence and diligence of the School Building Committee (SBC), who, in the words of a Mosquito reporter, have created a plan “to address the deficiencies of an aging campus while aiming at the moving target of Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) approval.”
Anyone who doubts that taxpayers will be lucky to resolve multiple problems with the existing school buildings for a mere $13 million need only glance south to Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) for evidence that things could have been much worse. The current Master Plan to renovate that school has been estimated at $108 million; Carlisle’s share, even after state reimbursement, would be roughly $22.5 million.
However, beyond $1,200 or more in taxes for two school renovations will be less concrete social and political costs as well: loss of flexibility in budgets for the schools and the entire town; constrictions in other town services; possible elimination of Community Preservation Act funding; and nearly inevitable political conflicts over spending, especially if Carlisle Public School (CPS) and CCHS enrollments rise. This fall and winter the Structural Financial Planning Committee has developed strategies on several fronts to prevent some of these stresses in the months and years ahead. But the benefit of their deliberations could be neutralized almost immediately, if the planning to replace the aging CCHS turns into the runaway train it begins to look like.
Of course the towns must take advantage of possible state reimbursement to do something about the deteriorated campus. However, the current CCHS Master Plan suggests that costs might explode beyond the capacity of Carlisle taxpayers to support. (Hult suggests optimistically that we can assume costs would be about the same as for the CPS debt, but my own back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates the current plan could easily balloon past $1000 for that “median” home.)
Because either town can in the end veto the entire project by voting “no” for the borrowing, Carlisle does have more potential influence on the building planning process than over yearly spending to run CCHS. However, this “just say no” approach might cost even more, eventually, since the school would go to the end of a long line for MSBA reimbursement. So this is the time to persuade high school leaders to reduce costs drastically since, as Hult noted this week, the budget will be more difficult to modify once the schematic design is set.
Also, right now, hoping for May Town Meeting and Election approval for the next planning stage (a “feasibility study”), CCHS officials are listening. Possible questions about the current plan are many, starting with a $10-13 million field house already known to be ineligible for reimbursement, and a forum next week (on April 15 at 7 p.m. in the Clark Room at Town Hall) gives us a chance to ask. But even more than querying the details, both townspeople and our leaders must insist the CCHS building committee make the same commitment to “affordability” that the Carlisle School Building Committee has demonstrated can work. ∆
Go with the flow
This spring we can take the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson literally – the Old North Bridge does indeed “arch the flood.” The Concord River is so high that both ends of that fabled span end in water, not on dry land, and the “embattled farmer” at the far side now guards his own private island. The path to the Buttrick Estate is completely submerged, with access by canoe only, and a sizable pond has emerged near the front yard of the Old Manse. Crossing the Lowell Road bridge into Concord, we’ve seen the virtual disappearance of the Old Cow Pasture; it’s morphed into a large lake, giving us a whole new perspective. What’s eerie about all the flooding is that the water seems completely still and calm . . . almost friendly. No raging torrents, barely even a ripple; just a slow, steady, inexorable rise. It seems almost benign, but of course it’s not.
The March rains were among the hardest and longest on record. Those accustomed to wet basements were on the alert early and took the usual precautions. Others were taken by surprise. I have a friend in Newton whose basement was “always dry,” or so she thought. While her neighbors were having a few problems, she was sufficiently confident that she did not even bother to check downstairs. It was only after several days of heavy rain that she discovered a foot of standing water in the cellar, which had apparently been there for some time. Naturally, all the important family memorabilia was stored on the bottom shelves, acting like a giant sponge. She did learn something, though: when airing out wet papers and photographs, you can freeze the stuff first, then put it through a controlled drying process, which helps diminish long-term damage. (Unfortunately, in the middle of all this, her freezer failed, too!)
In times like this, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Floods aren’t always bad news. In ancient Egypt, the entire economy was based on the annual inundation of the Nile. Each year brought fresh deposits of fertile soil and plenty of water for irrigation. The harvests were consistently robust, which is why Egypt was the richest and most powerful nation of its era. Back then, the year was basically divided into three seasons: flooding, planting and harvesting. During flood season, there was not much to do, since everything was pretty much under water. Hence, the ancient Egyptians had plenty of time on their hands to build the Pyramids. Without those floods, who knows? Of course, after the Aswan Dam was built, the Nile floods were a thing of the past. Now there’s plenty of cheap electricity instead, and chemical fertilizer must be used for the crops. Life is full of trade-offs.
This year’s record rains wrought some hardship (and will likely produce a bumper crop of mosquitoes), but in due course we will be enjoying lush gardens, and nobody will be worried much about drought for a while. This is fine by me. After all, an occasional flood, while inconvenient, is a reminder that Mother Nature is still in charge. And that’s a useful lesson, in any age. ∆
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