Minuteman Spurs Another Special TM …Jan. 6, 2016

By Ann Needle
For the second time in three months,  Stow will gather at a Special Town Meeting. On Feb. 1, the town will be voting on a crucial issue that could decide the fate of Minuteman High School’s long-planned building project. Voters will be asked to decide whether to accept an updated regional agreement among the vocational high school’s 16 member towns.

The Minuteman School Committee unanimously approved the amended agreement at a Dec. 21 meeting. According to Minuteman, the school expects its 16 member towns to hold special Town Meetings before March 1 to ratify these changes, with selectmen from the member towns already agreeing to the plan.

The new regional agreement would streamline the process for withdrawal by member towns, eliminate the five-student minimum charged to members for capital costs, and require out-of-district communities to help pay for their share  of capital costs of a new building.

For Minuteman administration, the hope is the amended agreement will help assure the unanimous consent it must have from its towns in favor of funding its $144 million plan to replace the aging school. All 16 towns must agree to the amendments and, later on, the project debt itself, in order to approve borrowing for the project.

The amendments would allow several Minuteman towns that are considering leaving the district to vote to leave on or before March 1, without the approval of voters from the other towns. This would allow the exiting towns to escape taking on debt from the building project. Under the current agreement, if voters in these towns were to approve leaving Minuteman before March 1, each town still would be responsible for some portion of those capital costs. The towns the Minuteman SC approved to leave the district as of July 1 are Boxborough, Carlisle, Dover, Lincoln, Sudbury, Wayland and Weston.

But in a unique twist, in order to leave Minuteman without incurring any portion of the building project debt, each of these exiting towns must also—along with member towns staying put— approve the borrowing for the new building in the next few months.

While the original plan called for all 16 towns to vote on both the amendments and the debt before March 1, several Minuteman School Committee members, at the Dec. 21 meeting, questioned whether that would give exiting towns enough time to educate residents on the importance of voting in favor of both questions. Separating the votes also would give all towns a glimpse of how many other members they could be sharing the cost with, knowing by then which towns will be leaving, explained Stow SC Rep. Alice DeLuca.

Other portions of the amended agreement are aimed at making membership in the Minuteman district more attractive. Supported by recent changes in state law governing what vocational school can charge out-of-district students, the amended agreement would require non-members to pay their of capital costs, which could help the school’s bottom line and encourage non-members to join the district, according to DeLuca.

Smaller towns would be encouraged to stay in or join Minuteman, as well, given the amendments would calculate their share of costs based on as few as a  single student. Currenty, town costs are calculated on a minumum of five students, even if the town has fewer than that number at the school.

Should the regional agreement changes get the unanimous approval of the 16 towns they need to pass, the next step will be to obtain the towns’ unanimous approval to borrow about $144 million for the building project. However, the MA School Building Authority is expected to fund almost 45% of this estimated cost.

Getting the Towns to “Yes”
Minuteman administration has viewed the current regional agreement as a blockade to getting the unanimous town approvals it needs for the project. Some of the smaller towns in the district have voted against taking on what they have perceived as an unfair share of these costs under the current agreement.
These issues likely sound familiar to many residents, given Stow convened a special Town Meeting Nov. 16 to vote on whether to allow the Town of Wayland to withdraw from the district. Under the current regional agreement, all other Minuteman towns would have to approve Wayland’s request to leave. During the Stow TM it was announced that, given Minuteman town Lexington had voted to deny Wayland’s request, then Stow’s selectmen moved No Action at the special TM.
Alice DeLuca explained that, after the Wayland vote went awry, several selectmen from the towns got together throughout the following month to draft amendments that could encourage members to support the project and stay in the district.

Meanwhile, Minuteman has until June 30 to obtain regional approval for the building project, or will probably lose MSBA funding. Because the state already has extended project deadlines for Minuteman over the past several years, it stressed that June 30 will be the final date to secure the MSBA’s promised funding, DeLuca said. She pointed out that without state funding, the district would be on its own to repair or rebuild a school that has not had a major overhaul since it opened in the 1970s. Minuteman estimated its members would shoulder a cost of about $105 million for major repairs if the district loses state funding, vs. $87 million if it obtains full MSBA funding.

DeLuca said the Minuteman SC is working to time its vote on the debt so that as many member towns as possible could vote on the project funding at a regular spring TM, rather than holding another special TM.