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Minuteman Hosts Project Forum…Oct. 7, 2015

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By Ann Needle
Minuteman High School held the last in a series of forums Friday morning for officials of its 16 member towns. Attracting about 40 attendees, the forum focused on details behind potential project costs and logistics for approving construction of a new, approximately $145 million technical high school in Lexington.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” declared Minuteman Building Committee Chair Ford Spalding. Built in the 1970s, the school has not had a major overhaul in its lifetime, leaving the facilities worn and often outdated, he said—and the bills for repairs promise to keep piling up.

Minuteman’s accreditation is currently on “warning” status, solely because of its facility issues, by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Spalding pointed to the $500,000 the Minuteman district spent back in 2011 to repair the trade hall, after the fire inspector abruptly closed it down due to safety concerns. Minuteman estimated that, if it does not pass the project, it will face a minimum of $105 million in crucial repairs and upgrades over the next few years. He said Minuteman aims to finish its new school by September 2020.

The MA School Building Authority voted to reimburse at least 40% of the project’s approved cost. Spalding reported that Minuteman has been in the MSBA application process since 2009—longer than any other district seeking state funding—because Minuteman has successfully gotten some deadline extensions from the agency along the way. However, he stressed, the MSBA has made it clear that the project is off its list permanently if not approved by June 30.

Special Election Possible
Meanwhile, a recent survey commissioned by Minuteman shows the project has solid support. Of the approximately 400 district residents responding, more than 68% reported they would vote for a new school, while less than 9% said they would vote against the construction (The rest of the respondents were undecided.)

Still, actual voter approval won’t come easy.

Ideally, the project must be approved by all of Minuteman’s towns at spring town meetings—even one “no” vote would mean rejection—and any Prop 2-1/2 overrides voted in by the June 30 MSBA deadline. However, under Minuteman’s regional agreement its School Committee could also approve holding a district-wide election on these issues before June 30.

Spalding confirmed that, in either case, any town in the district after the project is approved will be liable for its share of the capital costs. This could include Wayland, which voted to exit the district. However, each of the other 15 Minuteman towns must also approve Wayland’s exit, by a majority vote, at upcoming town meetings.

Meanwhile, Minuteman officials on Friday aimed to answer cost-related questions that have come up in the last several months. In a town-by-town breakdown of potential costs, Minuteman estimated that the project debt would cost a Bolton taxpayer owning a home worth the median assessment of $477,300 an extra $54 annually in taxes over the life of a 30-year loan.

Speaking to the often-questioned estimated annual cost of almost $25,000 to educate a Minuteman student, Spalding said, “We basically operate two schools under one roof.” He noted that the school must be designed to prepare students for both college and careers. This means Minuteman must adhere to requirements on minimum square footage for each shop (or major), storage, and specialty items such as eye washes, waste disposal, and grease traps, he explained.

Many have questioned the proposed school’s 628-pupil capacity, given enrollment has historically run above 700 students. Minuteman Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kevin Mahoney explained that, with more than half of the school’s current students attending from outside the district, Minuteman is aiming for the vast majority, if not all, of students in the new school to be in-district. He said the school is expecting about 524 students from within its 16-member towns.

The MSBA already stated it would not support a school designed for less than 600 students. Also, given the career programs to be dropped and added, the number would be high enough to provide a robust, varied education, without cutting services, explained Minuteman School Committee Chair Jeff Stulin.

And, though out-of-district students’ towns have not had to shoulder any portion of capital costs in the past, Mahoney stressed that this will change, with Minuteman receiving legal approval to assess a capital fee per pupil, on top of tuition, for each out-of-district student.

Asked if the fee might spur non-member towns to discourage students from attending, Spalding responded that it may actually help coax some of these towns into joining the district, especially if their tech students feel they don’t have other acceptable options.

“But they won’t do it without a new building,” Spalding maintained.  “A [town the size of] Watertown might, a Cambridge might. But what we need to do is think long term. If we don’t build a new building for 628 students, we won’t be getting $58 million [from the state].”

Speaking to a room filled with selectmen and board members from Minuteman’s towns, Superintendent Dr. Edward Bouquillon urged Friday’s attendees to start talking with potential member communities. He exhorted, “It’s just like the mall – you’re the anchor tenant, so let’s try to bring in other tenants.”

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