Photo: Special Town Meeting
Tonight’s Belmont Special Town Meeting – being held Monday, Feb. 22 at the Chenery Middle School – will include a vote to establish a Building Committee for the Belmont High School renovation and whether to include a site evaluation of the soil for contaminants at the high school before construction begins (even though that will occur as part of the building process.)
But those votes are just appetizers for the main course which comprises of the future of the Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, the location where a little more than two dozen Belmont students are taught in a vocational-technical environment. Belmont’s assessment to Minuteman fluctuates yearly from $830,000 in fiscal ’16 to $750,000 in the coming fiscal year.
What the Special Town Meeting will not explore is the education being provided the Belmont residents, but the building where they are being taught and who’s going to pay for a new High School.
According to Jack McLaughlin, the representative from Belmont’s Warrant Committee who helped shaped the new regional contract, the proposal before Town Meeting “is a terrible agreement until you see the alternative.”
- Here’s a brief history leading up to the special town meeting:
- In July 2014, the Lexington Fire Department came close to condemning the building, built in 1972, for lots of reasons.
- Minuteman’s administration begins the process of building a new school with an expected population of roughly 700 kids.
- Towns such as Belmont and Arlington wanted to put the brakes on this deal because 1. a high percentage of students come from municipalities outside the district (Waltham, Malden and Watertown that sends double the kids from Belmont) and 2. under the current agreement those towns don’t have to pay a red penny towards the debt to build the new facility even though the school’s current freshman class is nearly 50/50, district/non-district students.
- Belmont said “enough” to the planned school, saying if a new school is built, then it should be constructed for 400 kids, the number of students from members towns. The Minuteman administration, saying they need a big school to offer a greater number of courses to draw in students, virtually ignores the opponents and pushes forward with a new, larger school.
- Belmont – led by Belmont’s Minuteman School Committee member Jack Weis, the Warrant Committee’s Jack McLaughlin and Selectman Mark Paolillo – and Arlington told Minuteman unless they have a new regional agreement, you can expect a big fat NO when it comes time to approve issuing debt for the school. That would cause all sort of delays and chaos for the administration.
- In a surprise move, the Minuteman administration agrees in December to put up a regional agreement before the 16 municipalities for a vote. It must be a unanimous vote from the town meetings for it to pass.
- On the same day in January that Belmont received the state go-head from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to start the process of renovating and construction of Belmont High School, Minuteman was approved to begin the undertaking of building its new school. It will need to come back to the state by June 30, to demonstrate how they will pay for it. (i.e.,, the communities).
2. So, is tonight’s meeting about how much the town will have to pay for a new Minuteman High School?
No, that decision, to approve a $144 million new building, will come before June 30. Tonight’s vote is all about adopting a new regional agreement between the 16 towns and cities that are in the “district” including Belmont.
3. What’s in this new agreement?
A lot, specifically for Belmont.
- The new agreement jettisons the school committee’s “one-town, one-vote” and moves to a proportional board where those towns that send the most kids to the school have a greater weighted vote.
- It will be a bit easier to draw new towns into the club – it’s a buy-in incentive – giving them four years of gradual increasing capital payments before reaching their full assessment.
- Communities can withdraw much more quickly from the district, no longer needing all 16 other towns to agree. And seven of the 16 municipalities will be attempting to do just that if the agreement passes. Why? The towns – nearly all with only a handful of students – would not have to pay their part of the long-term debt. But by doing so, they would be prevented from returning to the district for four years.
- Cities and towns of out-of-district students will also be paying for the new school as each student will be assessed “a capital facilities fee” equal to at least the average member- town cost. That fee will need to be approved by the state, but Belmont reps said officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education didn’t make much of a fuss when presented with a draft agreement.
- Then there is the issuance of debt. All 16 (or 9, if the smaller communities leave) town meetings will still need to approve the $144 million building plan. [With state grants, the final price tag will be $100 million] Under the new agreement, if a town meeting rejects the debt plan, it can withdraw from the district before a second vote is called by the Minuteman administration. This way a portion of the $100 million debt can not be “crammed down on Belmont.”
4. The new agreement looks like a very good deal for Belmont; what could go wrong?
Plenty. Here’s one: legal action by Watertown and other communities for the state to throw out the capital facilities fee placed on their students. Malden and Watertown have some powerful friends in the legislature.
Here’s another, the school remains oversized for the number of students from the district, and that will not change. Belmont would see an additional $350,000 (increasing the average real estate tax bill by $38) added to its annual assessment bringing the town’s total yearly charge to a million dollars while Arlington would pay $1.5 million.
Also, it’s unlikely that the state will approve the new agreement before a vote will take by the 16 towns to support the debt. It appears that despite voting for a new regional agreement, Belmont and the other towns will be required to play by the “old rules” which doesn’t allow for an escape clause for towns that don’t agree with the size of the building or other aspects of the new school.
5. So why not just vote down the whole complex proposal?
Yes, that is an option. Only that there are consequences, the first is losing the Mass School Building Authority’s $45 million grant to build the new school. And since Belmont is a member of the district and under the old agreement can not leave without the approval of the other 15 member towns, it will be required to repair the building. That cost: $176.5 million over 10 years.