Finance Committee Crunches Numbers On Nauset High School Project

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance , Nauset Regional High School

A rendition of the renovated and expanded Nauset Regional High School campus.  COURTESY IMAGE

ORLEANS — Fine-tooth combs were the order of the day as the finance committee delved into the details of the Nauset Regional High School building project last week. Its guests included the chairmen of the building committee and the regional school committee as well as Superintendent Tom Conrad.

Renovation and construction at the half-century-old Eastham campus could cost up to $140 million, with the district’s four towns on the hook for about $97 million. The share for Orleans, based on its number of students, would be around 20 percent of that number. Reimbursement by the Massachusetts School Building Association would cover most of the remainder.

Building committee chairman Greg Levasseur said planners had to follow MSBA guidelines closely, including those calling for classrooms of 950 square feet and science labs of 1,200 square feet. “You’re welcome to maintain an 800-square-foot classroom, but you won’t get cost-sharing from the state,” regional committee chairman Chris Easley explained.

Members of the finance committee had wondered whether the building committee could have applied for a waiver given, as Bob Renn put it, that the MSBA standard for class size is 22 to 24 students while Nauset’s average is 16 to 18. Easley said the school has some classes with 23 students and probably some with 12, but MSBA “has a system by which they say this is how you should build a school. They really don’t allow much deviation.”

That said, Levasseur noted, the building committee is working to reduce costs and has already voted to cut 2,500 square feet from plans. While the state will pay a larger percentage for science labs, he added, it offers no assistance for office space. His committee has decided that “everybody gets the same office,” designed at 120 square feet.

Simply upgrading the school’s auditorium wasn’t an option, according to Levasseur. “Everything’s built in concrete,” he said. “To change the seating, you’d have to destroy the concrete to move it around. If you’re going to do that, (why not) just go ahead and make the space more available as a student center?”

The committee “is trying to get all public spaces (including the auditorium) away from actual school operations” by relocating them in the southeast corner of the campus, said Levasseur. “The goal of the district is to offer the high school as a community learning center. The adults are paying for it. We want them to use as much as possible.” That section will have a separate entrance.

Renn questioned another shuffling of uses, the planned relocation of art and craft studios from a building with high ceilings. Levasseur said the building to which they’ll be moved actually has a high ceiling that’s now concealed. “Some of the high bays (in the present building) will allow an area above the classroom for mechanical equipment to help us keep it out of the weather,” he said.

Regarding reuse of materials, the school’s distinctive cypress siding will be removed and some will be repurposed. “It’s a type of wood not seen anymore,” said Levasseur. “We’ll save as much as we can. Potentially it would be a way to break up the facing of the new auditorium facing the road, and some could go to the woodworking department.”

It’s not just the region’s four towns that send students to Nauset. Truro and Provincetown learners, without a hometown high school of their own, attend on a tuition basis, with costs negotiated by the region and the outermost towns every few years. Then there are school choice students from other systems who enter a lottery for a seat at Nauset High. Their sending districts give Nauset $5,000 per pupil, a number set decades ago by the state Legislature.

“This is economically patently unfair to the town,” Renn said, given that the average cost to educate a Nauset student is more than $20,000. “Choice students come into the district, and all they pay is $5,000.” Planning a renovated school to accommodate those from outside the region who aren’t required to contribute to the project “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

“Not economic sense,” finance committee chairman Lynn Bruneau said. “There are other considerations besides only just economic costs,” such as the ability to offer a greater variety of programs by having a larger student body.

Josh Stewart, who does double duty as a member of the Orleans School Committee and the regional board, said the elementary school has opted to receive school choice students in years when its enrollment is lower. “With classroom sizes around 13 to 14 kids,” he said, “the budget was the budget regardless. To fill those rooms, we chose to bring in choice students. It was the exact same cost for the school. With six kids, that was $30,000 extra to the school to purchase technology and fund extra activities. We turned empty seats into $5,000 seats for us. We took a seat earning zero dollars to one earning $5,000.”

“Choice can be a buffer for the school system,” Renn said, “but that also drives the cost of these facilities we’re talking about. You’re talking about 219 students coming to the high school via choice, a significant proportion of the population.”

“I don’t necessarily like the economics,” Bruneau said. Nevertheless, without sufficient enrollment, “you might wind up not giving French 2 if you didn’t have the head count. You could lose the ability to provide those courses if you don’t have a critical mass of students whether from the four towns or neighboring communities.”

Conrad said choice students help ensure a robust curriculum that better prepares local children to compete in the larger world. “We would more than likely have to cut 80 sections of instruction if choice went away,” he said. “It brings in revenue of about $1.1 million just for the high school.”

Nauset has begun to explore how it can work more closely with other communities, including the possibility of Provincetown and Truro joining the regional system. Such a step isn’t imminent, and in any case wouldn’t affect the financing of the renovated and expanded high school.

Speaking of financing, the region has heard from all towns except Orleans regarding the preferred length of bonding for debt, and the choice is for 20-year bonds rather than 25- or 30-year options. Brad Keith of the finance committee, who works for the Harvard endowment fund, cautioned against the shorter term. “The interest rate market is encouraging taking very long money,” he said. The regional committee will vote on how to structure the debt later this year.

Easley said he assumes the regional committee will seek approval of the project from the four member communities at town meeting and the ballot box, though it could hold its own district-wide vote. “The objective is that we’re all working together on this,” he said.

Renn thanked the Nauset representatives for the “level of detail” in their presentations, but said he was looking for more. “I still have a number of doubts about the project,” he said, “issues relating to the demographics and class sizes and how they drive the overall size and number of classrooms and so forth. I know that time may be short, but time still in my view needs to be spent to drive that issue to the ground.”

Adding that he had hoped for “a more positive reaction” to utilizing the auditorium as it exists, Renn said, “I think you need to address and resolve these issues and convince all of us that this is the best possible solution before you take it before the town meetings or bring it to the ballot box. We’re all supportive. We all want the best possible education for our children, but we’ve got to be convinced this proposal is the best possible value for the towns.”

Details about the project can be found at nausetbuldingproject.com. On Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. at the high school auditorium in Eastham, MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy will speak and answer questions about his agency’s role in the project. All are welcome.