FinCom backs Middle School article

By Betsy Levinson - betsy@theconcordbridge,org

Residents call for a closer look at the budget.

After an hours-long hearing last week, the 15-member Finance Committee voted to support Article 5 on the special Town Meeting warrant, which asks the town for $7.2 million to add to the approved $102.8 million to build a new Middle School.

Eleven of the committee voted aye, while three said the cost to taxpayers was too high and voted no. There was one abstention.

To recap the process to date, the town voted last winter to spend $102.8M at a special Town Meeting to build a new school on the site of the Sanborn building for sixth through eighth graders.

But as the bidding process got closer, construction costs and inflation led the Building Committee to seek several million more. Last month, the Select Board capped the price tag at $110 million, and called a special Town Meeting for Jan. 19, 2023.

Because the article is a debt exclusion outside the limits of Proposition 2 ½, it requires passage at Town Meeting and a follow-up vote at the polls.

Building Committee co-chair Pat Nelson said the school that was approved earlier in the year delivered the educational program the town deserves. She touted the “inclusive design” for the 50-year building, with an “emphasis on sustainability.”

Nelson said the building committee cut the budget over the summer and fall in a process called “value engineering.”

In a Building Committee report from October, the committee noted the painstaking process of cutting the budget.

“The CMSBC has met 10 times since July to explore and implement value engineering opportunities since construction cost estimates came back more than $5 million higher than levels approved at Town Meeting and the Special Election,” the report stated. “At those CMSBC meetings, members have successfully moved to adopt more than $2 million in value engineering cuts to the construction budget.”

At the hearing, the Building Committee said there were three “sacred cows” that it wouldn’t cut because the items would harm the educational program for the 700 students. Those items are the gym, auditorium and community spaces.

Nelson pointed to other Massachusetts towns whose school building budgets soared above what was approved: Nauset, up 20 percent; Andover, up 14 percent.

If the article does not pass at the Jan. 19 meeting and subsequent ballot vote, Building Committee members say the existing project is over and cannot be cut back and fulfill the education plan.

If it passes, taxes will rise by at least $1,000 per year based on the $102.8M for two decades on the median assessed house value of $971,000, and another estimated $80 more per year for about 20 years based on the $7.2M.

But some hearing speakers felt the town should design a building with the budget it was given, or $102.8 million.

Dorrie Kehoe asked for the Building Committee to continue to cut to reach the approved budget.

“A thousand dollars is significant,” she said. She noted that the gym and auditorium were not “critical, academically.”

Dean Banfield cautioned that the town may not be well served by the architect and project management.

“We don’t have options,” said Banfield. “We have irresponsible choices.”

One resident asked whether the Building Committee looked at cutting the eventual contractor’s profit as a way to trim the budget. Another asked why the town doesn’t delay the project until inflation comes down, thus lowering the total cost.

FinCom Chair Peggy Briggs praised the Building Committee.

“We are stuck with no state help,” said Briggs, adding that the three elementary schools received millions in state funds, and unlike the high school, the middle school doesn’t get help from Carlisle.

Briggs is not for delaying until there is a more favorable economic climate.

“We’d get less of a school for more money,” she said. “We need to get this done.”

But other members said it wouldn’t be so bad to go back and build a school the town can better afford.

FinCom member Eric Dahlberg asked about the impact of shrinking the scope of the school if it were redesigned.

Colleague Lois Wasoff cited the other expensive capital projects that would have to be deferred for the Middle School.

Town Moderator Carmin Reiss said if the article fails, another special Town Meeting would have to be called for a new project. The big pieces, like the gym and auditorium, can’t be removed from this article on the floor of Town Meeting. Nor can the town vote for more money under the article. But “less can be moved,” she said.

Superintendent Laurie Hunter said starting over with a new design would cost at least six to nine months and be more costly to build. Wasoff said the town “is very generous,” but felt the value engineering process “has not been robust.”

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