Chatham Finance Committee Backs Tech School Building Project

By: Tim Wood

Signs along local roadways urge voters to support the Oct. 24 ballot question on funding a new Cape Cod Technical High School building. KAT SZMIT PHOTO

CHATHAM – The finance committee has joined the board of selectmen in backing the construction of a new Cape Cod Regional Technical High School building.

The $127.9 million project will go before voters in all 12 towns in the regional district on Oct. 24. A majority vote will determine if the process of replacing the 42-year-old technical high school located on Pleasant Lake Avenue in Harwich will move forward.

The project won't have a significant financial impact on Chatham. Based on the current enrollment of 10 students, the annual cost for an average home valued at $872,000 will be $8.73 over a 30-year period, or about a one cent increase in the tax rate. Those figures could change with enrollment increases, however.

The figures also assume borrowing at 5 percent interest, Cape Tech Superintendent Robert Sanborn told the finance committee last week, which he said is conservative given current rates. It's possible the rate could be lower when its time to bond the construction costs in about 2020.

Five percent may sound high, “but a lot can happen” before finally borrowing is done in two or three years, said finance committee member Steve West. Chairman Stephen Daniel agreed, suggesting Tech officials also consider the possibility that rates could be higher.

“We live in volatile times,” he said.

Barbara Matteson said if possible, locking in an interest rate sooner rather than later might be worthwhile. Sanborn said that will be investigated if the Oct. 24 vote is positive.

There was concern over the size of the school. It's being built to accommodate up to 650 students, even though current enrollment is below 600. Although there has been a decline in recent years, Sanborn argued that the eighth grade population from which the school draws students has stabilized. While that demographic numbered in the 1,670 range in 2004, the past few years it has hovered around 1,000 to 1,200, he said.

“It's going to remain stagnant in the foreseeable future,” he said. “The big demographic decline has happened.”

A new school building would be a draw that could increase enrollment, Sanborn added, and the programs that will be offered are in fields that studies show will have a high demand for workers on the Cape, such as health care and the construction trades.

“All the programs we are putting into the new building enjoy a labor demand above 10 percent growth,” he said. The fields are relatively high-paying and will allow young people to remain on the Cape, he added. “This can help drive the economy and help solve some of the workforce issues. It's a bigger picture than what we are today.”

“It's shortsighted to say today we don't have 650 students, so let's not building a building for 650,” Sanborn said, pointing out the building is being designed to last 40 to 50 years.

Although the Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to a 45 percent reimbursement rate, state funding will effectively cover 33 percent of the project cost – dropping the local share to about $86 million – for a number of reasons. Because it is a technical school, the cost of furniture and equipment exceeds that $2 million cap set by the agency, Sanborn said. Site work is also more than allowed under the reimbursement formula, as is the per-square-foot cost. A big reason for that is that construction costs on the Cape are “very, very expensive,” said Leslie Schneeberger , a Chatham architect and member of the tech school building committee. Building codes are more stringent due to wind, and there aren't a lot of construction firms large enough to take on this sort of project on the Cape, so both materials and workers have to come from off Cape.

There also isn't a model technical high school design available; the new Monomoy Regional High School used a model school design that helped cut costs, although even that design had to be modified significantly, Schneeberger said. She scrutinized the floor plan for efficiencies and found that the size of the shops and classes are “what they need to be to house the equipment, to house the workspace around the equipment.” Changes in enrollment would not alter those requirements, she added.

Finance committee member and retired teacher Norma Avellar said vocational education is more important now than ever. “It is expensive,” she said, “but ignorance is more expensive.” She supported the project, but asked Sanborn, “Could you have found an uglier building?” Fincom member Florence Seldin also questioned the modern design, especially the large use of glass.

The glass helped meet energy efficiency goals, Sanborn said, and allows a significant amount of natural light into the building. Schneeberger said she also raised those concerns and found that the glass helps “cleverly disguise” concrete.

Several fincom members requested comparisons on per-pupil costs between the tech school and Monomoy High School. Daniel asked Finance Director Alix Heilala to post the figures on the town's website.

Although the financial impact on the town is minimal, even if enrollment of Chatham students doubles, West said he was concerned about the size of the proposed building. He cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he did not think “the value we get for the new school is not, quite frankly, warranted.”

As of this week, boards of selectmen in all but three of the district's 12 towns had voted to endorse the building projects. Finance committees in Brewster and Yarmouth also backed the project, although the Dennis finance committee opposed it. Harwich and Yarmouth selectmen have yet to vote, as has the Barnstable Town Counsel, according to Jim Mullin, Sanborn's administrative assistant.

An information session on the building project will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the school at 351 Pleasant Lake Ave.

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