Photo: A rendering of the new Minuteman School.
In a surprise vote of unity, the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to recommend a “no” vote by the annual Town Meeting on a request to finance a new $144 million building for the Minuteman
“I was not expecting a 3-0 vote from the board,” said John McLaughlin, who has been advocating that the town rejects the proposal.
“That said, I am delighted with the vote,” said McLaughlin, who was part of the town’s task force that spent two years atttempting to construct a new district plan and attempt to build and finance a new school.
McLaughlin noted that nearly all the remaining nine community town meetings have or are likely to approve the measure, saying the Selectmen were showing the same courage to act on principal as is the theme of the play “Twelve Angry Men.”
“It shows leadership to vote and not be influenced or motivated what others are doing,” he said.
For Jack Weis, Belmont’s representative on the Minuteman School Committee, the negative vote was not unexpected.
“I not surprised by the vote because [the Middlesex school authorities] had a high bar to clear” which it could not do because “the project had major flaws,” said Weis.
“This is a really tough call,” said Mark Paolillo, chair of the board, as the selectmen reviewed and voted on each of the articles that will be before Town Meeting in the May session which includes all non-budgetary items as well as the scheduled Special Town Meeting.
“As a group, we are not ready to move forward” on the measure since the building selected is “too big” for the students committed to attend, said Paolillo.
Saying that while the board is not saying a new school building – the current structure dates from the early 1970s and was nearly shut down by the Lexington Fire Department four years ago for safety concerns – “it’s just that we could have a white elephant” on the town’s financial books, said Paolillo.
In the end, the selectmen could not justify building a new school for roughly 630 students when the now reconstituted ten community Minuteman school district is sending little more than half – 330 pupils –of that number.
“It really is froth with uncertainity,” said Selectman Jim Williams.
In addition, the Selectmen were concerned that many assumptions being made by the Minuteman administration – of increasing enrollment, the hope the state would approve placing a $8,400 tuition surcharge on the nearly 45 percent of the school’s population that come from “out of district” communities (such as Watertown and Waltham) to help pay for the new school – were too risky to undertake considering that Belmont would be saddled with between an annual charge of $372,000 to $500,000 in capital expenses for the next 20 years.
“That’s a lot of money to spend when [Belmont] sends 26 students there a year,” said McLaughlin,
The selectmen’s vote came two days before the Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog also votes on the Minuteman measure. In previous meetings, a majority of Warrant Committee members voiced similar concerns with the proposal.
If Belmont rejects the Minuteman school, the new building scheme – which the Massachusetts School Building Authority has pledged nearly $45 million to its construction – would be set aside while several options are considered by the state and Minuteman administration.
One alternative would be a district-wide vote in the remaining 10 communities in which a simple majority of the 10 communities would ratify the deal or if the district ejects the town from the school district.
The vote came after the town in February voted to overwhelmingly approve joining an newly structured Minuteman School District.
But McLaughlin said Town Meeting Members should not confuse that approval of a new district structure should automatically lead to approving a new building,
“For towns like Belmont and Arlington that rely on their residential tax base, it would really hurt if something that is overbuilt and over priced is crammed down their throats,” he said.