Citizens Forum Hears Rationale, Numbers For Nauset High Project

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance , Nauset High School

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

ORLEANS — “New occasions teach new duties,” James Russell Lowell wrote. That thought may be helpful as Nauset Regional School District taxpayers weigh a high school reconstruction project that will benefit not only the district’s children but also some from other Cape towns as well as adult learners from the system’s four communities.

The Eastham high school’s student body is a mix of pupils from Brewster, Eastham, Orleans and Wellfleet; a tuition-paying contingent (at about $18,000 per student) from Provincetown and Truro; and youngsters from other communities who have selected Nauset through school choice. The home districts of the last group contribute $5,000 per student, a state-set number that hasn’t changed in decades.

With planning under way to reconstruct the half-century-old campus to meet the educational needs of the next 50 years, costs are emerging as well. At an Orleans Citizens Forum meeting on the project Jan. 16, building committee chairman Greg Levasseur told an audience of more than 60 that the price tag is $131,825,665, with about $94.5 million to be paid by the region’s four towns and up to $36.7 million to be covered by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The towns would be required to bond the full amount over 20, 25, or 30 years and would be reimbursed a percentage by the state.

Why, some asked, do the four towns have to pay for a school where more than their own youngsters will be educated? To explain, Superintendent Tom Conrad offered a lesson in modern demographics, economics, and education. He said his Cape colleagues agreed with the findings of a respected demographer that population growth will be “flat” for a number of years. “The issue then became, what are we doing for our kids to continue a robust program academically?”

That’s a real question for what some are calling “the outermost high school.” If a limited number of school choice candidates were not admitted, the number, variety, and depth of the educational experience for all students would be reduced.

“We don’t just teach science, math, history, and language,” Principal Chris Ellsasser said. “We have the kinds of electives you normally find at a private school that will cost you $60,000 a year. Research on education shows that robust offerings of electives ensures that students will attach to some aspect of education and that will give them the strength they need to push through all the rest. The more offerings we have as a school, the more connections there are.”

In addition, the reconstructed high school is being described as “a community center for education.”

“We truly believe that this facility should be open as much as it possibly can be for every citizen in the community,” Conrad said. “The community and the citizens own this school. We see a really important role we can play in the learning that takes place for everybody in our community. For all of us, we need to continue to learn.” To that end, there will be separate access to the gym, new cafeteria, and new performing arts center through a community entrance when the rest of the campus is closed off.

After reviewing the school’s accomplishments and its physical drawbacks, Ellsasser said the state building authority encouraged immediate action. “We jumped to the front of the line because the need is so high,” he said. “The MSBA was so impressed with our academic program that they’re collaborating with us on a level that usually doesn’t happen. They want to make this happen for our school so they can say to other schools in the state that you, too, should make this happen for your kids with the breadth we have.”

If voters don’t approve the project this spring (a two-thirds margin is required), “it means more than going back to the front of the line,” Ellsasser said. “We’re out of the mix entirely. We would have to do it all over again and pay for the initial steps. The notion that if we don’t get it now we can get it next year is a myth.”

Audience members were encouraged to call the school to schedule a tour, which is the same one given to officials from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Finance committee chair Lynn Bruneau said the website for her board has extensive information on the project, including a question and answer session with school leaders. The forum itself will be available for viewing on the Orleans Citizens Forum website and on Lower Cape TV.