Town’s Financial ‘Watchdog’ Follows Selectmen Recommending ‘No’ On Minuteman

Photo: The interior of the new Minuteman Tech High School.

In a vote that was not unexpected, the town’s Warrant Committee voted Wednesday, April 27, to recommend next week’s Town Meeting rejects a $144 million funding plan for a new building to house the Minuteman Career and Technical High School.

The 8 to 6 vote came two days after the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted Monday, April 25, unanimously to recommend “unfavorable action” on the financing program that would have the 10 communities that now represent a newly reconstituted Minuteman school district – which Belmont Town Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved in February at a Special Town Meeting – picking up about $100 million in expenses as the state will reimburse $45 million in costs. 

Under the financing plan, each of the ten district communities Town Meetings must approve the building project. So far, most of the smaller towns such as Acton, Stowe and Boxborough have voted in favor of the plan. In an important decision just days before the two Belmont votes, Arlington’s financial committee which has the same role as Belmont’s Warrant Committee, recommended a “yes” vote to Arlington’s Town Meeting which convenes in mid-May.

As with the selectmen’s vote the previous night, a majority of the committee expressed that the building, designed to house 630 students, is too large for the ten member communities in the Minuteman School District who send about 340 high schoolers to the Lexington campus.

Belmont currently sends 26 students to the school, which is about the average number over the past decade. 

In addition, those opposing the plan contend there is no assurance other than recent favorable comments from officials from Everett and Watertown – two communities outside the district that pays a higher tuition per pupil to send them to Minuteman – that any of the out-of-district cities and towns that send students to Minuteman are willing to join the district and take on a sizable chunk of the capital expense of a new school, or are prepared to back a $8,400 per student surcharge the district is seeking to help defer the cost of the building. 

Finally, even if others would step up to the plate to subsidize the cost, Belmont would be saddled with an annual payment over 20 years of between $372,000 and $500,000 of its share of the construction costs. 

“We simply don’t have the money. It would require us to cut [town and school] programs to find the funds,” said Paolillo, saying the town would need to request a debt exclusion to pay for the building around the same time the town will approach residents seeking a possible $100 million debt exclusion for the renovation and new construction at Belmont High School.  

“We really have no other options,” said Paolillo, who believes a no vote – which will scuttle the plan – will require the Minuteman district to come up with a Plan B, which the district members can take a new look at the issues facing the school. 

Pleading the case for a new school building, Minuteman Superintendent Ed Bouquillon reiterated the hope that a new school building, sized to allow for the teaching a wide range of trades and areas of engineering studies in addition to greater interest nationwide among high school aged student in learning technical subjects.

Bouquillon also noted that a school built for 435 student – the smallest that the state will reimburse – would cost $120 million. While admitting that the $24 million difference “is significant,” it should be seen as an “incremental cost” when you understand the upside of having a school with greater potential of serving a wider population with a significant number of programs.

Supporters on the committee, including newly installed chair Roy Epstein, said despite the cost, “it was better off going forward than stopping and starting over” without the assurance that the new plan would be better for Belmont and its students.

But the majority decided a “rethink on this whole district” is needed, said committee member Bob McLaughlin.

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