By Ann Needle
While an overwhelming majority of Minuteman High School’s member towns accepted the vocational school’s planned building project this spring, rejection by one town was enough to scuttle those plans for now. But, at Minuteman’s May 17 School Committee meeting, it was clear that administration has not given up on project.
Belmont rejected its portion of the $144 million needed for the new building. All other Minuteman towns, including Stow, approved the spending. Among those approving were five towns that voted as of March 1 to leave the Minuteman district. As part of the new district agreement, those towns — which had been considering leaving—were promised they would not be responsible for their portion of the building project, as long as they also voted in the debt.
Timing has become crucial. The MA School Building Authority has pledged to cover at least 40 percent of the project’s eligible costs. However, after three years of delays while Minuteman has tried to get all of its towns to agree to the spending, the MSBA intimated that June 30 would be its final deadline for Minuteman to commit to state funding, according to Minuteman Superintendent Dr. Edward Bouquillon summarizing the situation the school is facing.
Bouquillon reported that Belmont’s Town Meeting on May 4 rejected the project spending by a vote of 141-81. According to MSBA policy, any school district whose project was rejected by its voters must submit a letter to the agency within 10 calendar days of that vote. The letter is to explain why the district believed the project was rejected, and what it planned to do about it, he said. The MSBA gave Minuteman a 4-day extension on that deadline, so the letter was to be submitted May 18, Bouquillion noted.
Once the letter was to be sent, Bouquillion said the next step would be to wait for word from the MSBA on whether it will grant Minuteman’s request to extend the June 30 deadline for district approval on the project another 180 days. If Belmont does not work out some sort of agreement with the district that would allow the project to go on, Bouquillion noted that Minuteman could resort to a district-wide election, which would be decided by majority vote across the towns.
With little more than a month until the June 30 deadline, Bouquillon stressed that an MSBA extension is crucial in giving the district enough time to obtain district-wide approval. Otherwise, he commented, “We would be ejected from the [MSBA] pipeline,” and forced to re-apply for state money.
Belmont Points to Cost
Belmont Minuteman SC Rep. Jack Weis told the SC that the reason his town rejected the project was tough to pinpoint, “But I believe it was the juxtaposition of size and cost.” Though Minuteman estimated Belmont will have the about 39 students at the school when the project is completed, Weis pointed out the town currently has only 26. Referring to the estimated debt Belmont would take on for the Minuteman project, he said TM representatives asked themselves, “Would Belmont spend $8-10 million in our town on a school that would serve 6 to 10 high school kids per grade?”
Minuteman reported it had 754 students (332 out-of-district), with the new building approved for 628. Pundits have argued that the new building still would be too large, given Minuteman has been vocal about filling it with as many in-district students as possible.
In the letter to the MSBA, issued the day after the SC meeting, Bouquillon agreed with Weis’s insights, mentioning that Belmont is facing a number of other possible capital projects — including refurbishing Belmont High School — and doubts over the state’s new capital fee on out-of-district students’ towns. But Bouqullion also asserted that, unlike other Minuteman TMs, Belmont did not allow him to make a presentation on the project or to answer questions during debate.
Minuteman School Committee Rep. Alice DeLuca of Stow maintained that, given Belmont cast the only “no” vote on the project, the MSBA will hopefully see that a new building has overwhelming support in the district.
“I’m open to any path,” Jack Weis said in pledging his support for perhaps reversing Belmont’s decision by engaging town leaders in more discussion. If Belmont cannot be persuaded to somehow approve project spending, Weis conceded, “Maybe the solution is for Belmont to get out of the way.”