The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 30, 2010

CCHS renovation plan explained at forum Concord approves feasibility study, schematic design funding

CCHS Facilities Master Plan Committee member Karla Johnson (left) listens as Chair Michael Fitzgerald describes the proposed high school renovation project. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

Something under a dozen people attended a public forum on April 15 to clarify the upcoming Warrant Article to fund a feasibility study and schematic design for renovation of the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS). At the table to present information and answer questions were CCHS School Building Master Plan Committee members Louis Salemy and Karla Johnson, Chair Michael Fitzgerald and Selectman Tim Hult. Salemy began the forum and stressed the need for upgrading the high school facility, “It’s in dire need of major renovation. Now is the time: we are in a unique position to take advantage of state funding.”

A Master Plan for the high school was completed in March of this year. Salemy explained that both Concord and Carlisle must pass a Warrant Article to approve a total of $1.3 million to fund a feasibility study and schematic designs in order to seek project approval for partial reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). Concord voters approved the measure at their Town Meeting on Monday.

Carlisle will vote on the feasibility study funding at Town Meeting on May 10 and Town Election on May 18. Carlisle’s share of the $1.3 million will be roughly $390,000. Originally, it was thought the feasibility study would not be eligible for reimbursement. However, Salemy later said that MSBA has indicated it may reimburse 31% of the expense. If this were to happen, it would bring Carlisle’s cost down to about $270,000.

Infrastructure issues, accreditation

Fitzgerald expanded the committee argument for renovation, declaring that the 50-year-old physical plant has such serious design and infrastructure issues that it is under “warning” status by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the organization that accredits high schools. He added that the high school has inadequate space, with “an over 90% utilization rate. Many students find themselves unable to schedule classes. We also place special needs students out of town, at a great cost to the towns, because of inadequate space to house them at the high school.” In addition, he said, there are serious safety issues. “Did you know that there are 74 exterior doors on this campus?”

Karla Johnson noted that, “As an architect, I can tell you that the present facility is in deplorable condition, and that it is wasting our money.”

MSBA will reimburse renovation only

The MSBA has made it clear that the state will not reimburse the cost of a new facility for CCHS, but will provide aid only for a renovation. The Master Plan Committee came up with an initial renovation plan, estimated at $108 million, that addresses the needs, as Fitzgerald put it, “of contemporary education: collaborative spaces, technology tools and flexibility in design.”

Salemy emphasized that $108 million represents a preliminary estimate. He continued that if given a green light by the state, the next step will be to “meet with the MSBA to determine the level of reimbursement, and then form a building committee to partner with the MSBA to design the project and a budget.” Carlisle Selectman Tim Hult noted in his remarks that “it will be a significant-sized project, north of $75 million at the low end of the range to do this.”

Ad hoc committee on affordability

Salemy addressed the question of affordability, “I will be the chair of the Regional School Committee next year and I can assure you that there will be a commitment to affordability because I do not want to waste two years of my life on studies that won’t pass muster.” Salemy has proposed an ad hoc committee, made up of Concord and Carlisle’s town treasurers and representatives from their Selectmen, finance committees (FinComs), school committee members and regional school administration to address the issues of affordability along the whole process.

One controversial part of the Master Plan is the construction of an athletic facility for $13.5 million. Members of the forum panel explained that this facility would enable students “to have a place to go” for classes during the estimated three- to four-year construction project.This would save the communities $6 to $8 million in trailer rental, as well as give both communities an area “for community events as well as graduation.” In addition, it would provide CCHS athletes with a state-of-the-art field house to replace their current athletic center. Salemy noted that his proposed ad hoc committee would investigate the idea of private funding for this facility in light of the fact that the state will not reimburse this part of the project.

Selectmen support feasibility study

Hult reviewed the Selectmen’s position with regard to the project, noting that the board supports a major renovation at the high school. “It is a tired, aging facility,” he said, “its accreditation is in question, and this is the third study/plan in the last 15 years. The last renovations were in the early ’90s. In the early 2000s there was a $40 million renovation project discussed, and then the events of 2001 affected the economy and scuttled that plan. Another study in 2005 said we should have a new building, but Concord was building multiple schools at the time.”

Hult continued, “We would not have chosen this time, right after Carlisle School approval and in the middle of a recession. However, the partnership with the MSBA is extremely important.” He said, “It is a great time to bid to get an affordable project from the building trades. We needed to do this project 22 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, now. There’s never a perfect time, but there is a necessary time and it is now.”

Hult also reviewed the financial information he provided at the April Special Town Meeting to demonstrate how the project could be “affordable over time.” He said,“The enrollments are declining, causing less operating expenses. The number of students from Carlisle in CCHS will decrease as a percentage, which will have a positive impact on our ability to afford our part of the project.” Hult said, “Seventy-five percent of our costs are personnel.” He added, “If we can lower the rate of increase of personnel costs slightly, it will have a dramatic effect.” The high school is, Hult said, “the most important structure these two towns own. Hard budget work can make this do-able.”

Questions from the audience: trust and transparency

At the end of the presentation, Salemy presided over a question-answer period. Former Carlisle FinCom Chair Thornton Ash commented that over the years he has served on various financial committees in town that “all of these big projects are always [estimated at] $100 million, so there is always a perception that these things are gold-plated,” and that “we haven’t had the level of communication that we had with [the Carlisle School project]; we don’t see a lot of details.” He asked where the project stands in comparison to the process with the Carlisle School.

Fitzgerald answered, “There were close to nine different alternatives from the architect. We narrowed it down to three and chose from those three. The one we finally selected was the one that had the shortest phasing of construction. That is not necessarily the approach that the subsequent building committee will take.” He explained that this committee will be “a new group of people who will be chartered with working through the feasibility study with the MSBA. I don’t think,” he concluded, “that anyone in either town is going to be ready to write a larger check than is necessary.” Fitgerald noted that all the work the committee has done so far can be seen on its website,

Affordability issues

Selectman Doug Stevenson said, “I’m concerned about having a project that pushes the limit beyond $60 or $70 million to the $100 million range. Financial constraint is essentially overlaid on the project. We need to show the town that we’re disciplined about how we arrive at the figures and about meeting the financial constraint. I’m concerned about keeping this in an affordable range. Achieving the scope of a project is always a combined effort bringing together the things that people want and need with the budget of the project.”

Candidate for Board of Selectmen Larry Bearfield took up the refrain, saying, “Affordability is definitely the recurring theme here. Moving ahead with this is really threatened by the fear of the unknown. You’re essentially saying: trust us; we will look out for your best interests. I think the more commitment to affordability you demonstrate, the better, if you want to assure passage [of this Warrant Article]. Given that there are declining enrollments, for example, how would we fit in with that ratio as the timeline goes along?”

Hult explained that the percentage Carlisle pays for CCHS “is figured each year; it floats. The assessment ratio this past year was 30%. In 2015 will drop to 24% and will eventually go down to 21% if you can trust the trend.” Fitzgerald added, “The incoming kindergarten class at Carlisle Public School is 46 and a few years ago it was almost 80. Remember also that we have veto power. That’s our trump card.”

Salemy put in, “Operating savings will happen with complete renovation. When Concord built the new Willard school, they made a bigger school but reduced energy costs by 40%. There is a return that will come in the way of better operating costs. The chief benefit of the ad hoc committee will be better communication of the finances.”

How much reimbursement?

Carlisle representative to Minuteman Technological High School, Mariellen Perugini, rose to note that, “Minuteman’s feasibility study is also an Article at our upcoming Town Meeting.” She asked, “What is the real percentage of reimbursement that we can expect from the MSBA? Minuteman will get a 40% minimum. Can we expect to get higher than 35% for [the CCHS] project?” Fitzgerald answered, “Forty percent is usually the baseline people work from, and you go up or down based on what you build. Thirty-five percent is a conservative number at this point.” Panelists added, however, that Minuteman’s reimbursement rate will be higher because the district includes several less affluent communities and because the state is fast-tracking vocational schools.

Designs not based on state models

Nancy Pierce of Westford Street asked the final question, “If CCHS were rebuilt on the current athletic field and with a “big box” design, would there be substantial savings?” Fitzgerald replied that it is true that the MSBA “is promoting a ‘WalMart approach’ to educational buildings: essentially a big box. We took the approach to be what our program would require in a facility, and it wasn’t a box.”

He reiterated that the MSBA would not reimburse a CCHS project that proposes a new school instead of a renovation. “We believe that the existing site is the most optimum site as well,” he said. ∆

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