Voters To Decide Cape Tech Building Project Tuesday

By: Alan Pollock

An architect's rendition of the proposed new Cape Cod Tech building.  

PLEASANT LAKE Following years of planning, studying and lobbying state officials, Cape Tech will see its bid for a $128 million new school building put before voters Tuesday.

It's the first such vote in the history of the regional school district, which teaches vocational skills to students in the 12 towns between Mashpee and Provincetown. School officials are seeking to completely replace the existing 42-year-old school building.

“When we entered this process, we fully researched renovation versus new construction,” said Superintendent of Schools Robert Sanborn, III. “They were virtually the same cost.”

School and town officials received some good news last week. A supplemental budget bill approved by both the House and Senate included a provision to increase the state's contribution to the Cape Tech building project. The legislation directs the Massachusetts School Building Authority to use 2017 figures to calculate the proportion of economically disadvantaged students in the district; the previous calculation used an earlier, lower number. The result will increase the MSBA reimbursement rate for the project from 45.45 percent to 51.12 percent of eligible costs, saving local taxpayers $5.3 million.

“We've been working on this for almost a year,” sand Sanborn. He credited Rep. Sarah Peake and State Senator Julian Cyr with working to ensure that the provision was included in the supplemental budget.

Although the bill is now before a conference committee, because the Cape Tech provision is in both the House and Senate versions, it cannot be altered, Cyr said in a press release. Once the legislation is signed by Gov. Charles Baker, the MSBA will meet to reopen its determination on the level of reimbursement for the project.

In each of the 12 towns, polls will be open Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m., with a ballot question asking to authorize the district to borrow funds for the construction project. If the question passes by a majority of voters in the 12 towns, each town will pay a share of the project based on the number of students it sends to the district. To pass, the ballot question does not need to win approval from each of the 12 towns, just a majority of all ballots cast.

The unusual hours of the election are dictated by state law, and the mechanism of the vote – district-wide rather than town-by-town – was specified by the agreement that created the regional school district decades ago.

“The majority wins. And that is not a Cape Cod Tech decision,” Sanborn said.

Voters in Harwich Tuesday will also be asked to exclude its $10 million share from the borrowing limitations of Proposition 2½. In Orleans and Chatham, where the contributions are smaller, no debt exclusion vote is needed (though Orleans voters will face two unrelated Proposition 2½ debt exclusion questions at the same election). On Sept. 19, voters in Barnstable approved a debt exclusion by a nearly two-to-one margin, with almost 8 percent of registered voters casting ballots. The project will proceed if the district-wide question is passed, regardless of individual towns' debt exclusions.

By statute, the project cost is shared among the district's 12 member towns using a rolling formula based on each town's enrollment. In the current fiscal year, 10 students from Chatham are attending Cape Tech, 77 students are coming from Harwich and 15 come from Orleans. Based on the average single family home value – and assuming steady enrollment figures - the project would add about $22.74 to the average Orleans property tax bill each year over 30 years. In Harwich, the figure would be $66.51, and in Chatham, the impact would be just $8.73.

According to the ballot, the cost of the new school to Chatham will be $1.3 million; Orleans will pay $2 million; and Harwich $10.7 million, exclusive of interest. Those figures will change based on the increase in state reimbursement.

Though the impact on towns like Chatham and Orleans is minimal, Sanborn warned that even a small change in enrollment, like one or two additional students, could add noticeably to a town's assessment.

The proposed building will have room for 650 students, with flexible academic spaces and a host of modem vocational shops. Using a compact, three-story design, the new school is designed to fit into the topography along the eastern edge of the property, which is on a slight hill. The conceptual design includes two wings of academic classrooms and a large, linear space for vocational shops, with additional height and access for the construction and transportation shops. If the project is approved by voters, groundbreaking will be held in 2019, with construction taking place while the current school remains in use. When the new building is ready for use in 2021, the old school would be demolished to make room for parking and new sports fields.

Originally estimated at $141 million, the project cost was revised downward to $127,946,027. The construction figures remain conservative, and the total paid over the borrowing period will depend on the interest rate; it is possible that interest rates will be lower and contingencies won't be fully needed.

“There could be good news on both of those,” Sanborn said.

Officials in most district towns, including Chatham and Orleans, have endorsed the project. The Harwich Board of Selectmen voted Monday night to support the building project on a 4-0-1 vote. Selectman Donald Howell had several questions for Sanborn relating to the size of school and number of students to be accommodated in the new structure.

Sanborn said the new school would be 6,000 square feet larger than the present structure, pointing out 60 percent of the classrooms in the present facility do not meet today's classroom size standards. There are no expectations that the student population will rise significantly; he said the school is scaled for 650 students, the average enrollment over the past decade.

The superintendent said he's glad that the district is not pursuing a renovation plan for the existing building, since that would require the use of temporary teaching spaces or would interrupt classes. The cost of new construction is about the same, “also taking half the amount of time with no disruption to education,” he said. “As with a home, there is always a danger of a renovation growing in scale when walls are opened up. It's the unknowns that could've been very scary,” Sanborn said.

Though outwardly in good shape, the existing building suffers from outdated electrical and climate control systems and has instructional spaces that are inadequate for today's course of study. The current building was constructed more than 42 years ago, and until this project, the district hadn't asked member towns for any capital funds to maintain the building, relying instead on its own annual budget. Sanborn said the building has been meticulously maintained, and while it doesn't appear obsolete, it has failing windows and doors, bricks that tend to wick water, and a design that doesn't meet current plumbing or electrical codes or Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Moreover, the existing building was designed with an open academic floor plan, which was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Teachers immediately concluded that open classes were prone to disruptions and noise, so the school erected a series of partitions over the years to try and undo the open floor plan design.

“It was a failed experiment,” Sanborn said.

Cape Tech competes keenly with other public school districts like Monomoy and Nauset for students, and offers students the prospect of well-paying jobs close to home when they graduate, without the need for a college degree or student loans. Many Tech students do go on to college, but Sanborn said there is an obvious need for vocational workers on the Cape.

“We're a workforce development solution, and I think we're an economic development solution, too,” he said. At least anecdotally, it appears that more of Cape Tech's graduates remain on Cape Cod than do graduates of other high schools, who often have to go off-Cape to find jobs in their chosen fields, the superintendent said. In addition to working in key local businesses in hospitality, health care, the building trades and other specialties, Cape Tech graduates remain part of the community.

“They'll live here, shop here, buy a home here and pay taxes here,” Sanborn said.

Polls will be open on Oct. 24 from noon to 8 p.m. at the Harwich Community Center, the Chatham Community Center and the Orleans Senior Center. For election results Tuesday night, visit www.CapeCodChronicle.com.