AB School District proposes hundreds of millions in new elementary buildings

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School District is starting the process of upgrading the aging elementary schools in Acton, with a projected cost of around $250 million-$400 million. The plan is still very fluid, but the preliminary approaches from which the School Committee will eventually choose will be presented to the community tomorrow night, Thursday, December 8, at 7:30 pm, in the Junior High library. The public is invited to attend, and anyone who wishes to apply to be a member of a school subcommittee to explore the options in great detail and make recommendations to the full School Committee is welcomed to apply, with an application deadline of Dec. 12th.

As a fiscal conservative, I look at these needed upgrades with an eye towards frugality. How can we get the job done, and produce the best results for the least money? And, perhaps more importantly, will there be additional spending "hidden" by our representatives in order to improve our school system, but be done in such a way that does not fully disclose the costs and choices that voters will eventually be asked to approve?

Yes, I am a cynic. But I've seen the School Committee do this so often that I have learned that it is simply in their nature. In their view, doing what is best "for the children" justifies any act of deception. Fair play is not part of their vocabulary.

So while this is very early in the process, let me outline a few of my concerns from what I have heard so far, and those who are interested in keeping taxes lower than they otherwise would have been (I can't say keeping taxes low, because that ship has sailed) can follow along and see if these concerns are addressed.

1. All Day Kindergarten.
It appears that the plan is to design our elementary buildings so that we will offer free, all-day kindergarten. Great for parents, not so great for taxpayers. This greatly increases our infrastructure spending and thus will cost millions of dollars in construction, maintenance, staff, etc., plus will result in the loss of the current "all day k" revenue that parents are now funding. It will also impact all the private kindergarten options in town. I'll bet they also offer "fee-based" pre-k, until that becomes something that taxpayers are asked to fund in the future as well.

2. Refurbish versus build new
Incredibly, the consultants have estimated that it is less expensive to build new buildings rather than use the existing buildings and refurbish them. If this isn't a mistake based on faulty assumptions, I don't know what is. It has got to be far cheaper to reuse buildings, even if the layout doesn't give you every latest "educational innovation."

As far as reuse goes, where are those pesky environmentalists when we need them? Isn't it "greener" to use our existing buildings and make them work if that will get us, say, 90% to our goal? Or are taxpayers always responsible for paying for A+ work?

3. Reimbursement
Much of the planning is based on the state's school building funding program, which has a fairly low probability of being used. It is competitive, we are a relatively wealthy community, and we don't want to embark on an expensive program only to learn that no reimbursement is happening. Likewise, if we plan on a $400 million project because the state will give us $50 million, is that really better (i.e., necessary) than a $150 million project without state funding?

4. Budget savings
One way taxpayers can truly save money is by reducing capacity. This concept needs to be "front and center" during this process. Going from six elementary buildings to five would save millions in operating costs. Those potential savings must be factored and considered in any analysis of options. If we save, say, $5 million per year, that translates into probably $100 million or more of construction costs at today's low interest rates. Therefore, a plan that reduces expenditures has to have a cost basis of roughly $100 million less. So the price tags of the options need to consider this carefully and realistically, without misleading assumptions meant to steer voters into approving the "preferred" solution.

5. Capacity
The capacity figures that I've seen underestimate by a large factor our current buildings. Enrollment is going down, and empty space is going way up. Some of the plans seem to recognize this, by reducing the "number of elementary schools" from six to five, which is good, but this needs to be shown clearly and not with misleading figures.

It gets confusing because we can have one building with two "schools" in it (like the current Parker-Damon building with two separate elementary schools, Merriam and McCarthy-Towne.)

Again, this is a problem of assumptions. If we don't count spaces we currently use, like our modulars that are attached to some buildings, or if we don't show clearly that some buildings are basically half-empty, like Boxborough's Blanchard elementary school, then we can't trust the solutions either. Show the true numbers and put an asterisk if one needs to footnote things, not the opposite.

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If you would like a synopsis of the building subcommittee that is looking for volunteers, have questions, or want further information, please email SC Chair Mary Brolin (mbrolin@abschools.org) or ABRSD Secretary Beth Petr (bpetr@abschools.org), or call Beth at 978-264-3306.

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