Dollars And Sense: Forum Airs Competing Views On Nauset HS Project

By: Ed Maroney

Nauset Regional High School Building Committee Chairman Greg Levasseur reviewed the costs of the project with the Brewster Community Network Feb. 27.

ED MARONEY PHOTO

BREWSTER – There are two schools of thought about the $131,825,665 Nauset Regional High School renovation/addition project.

One reflects years of work to produce a plan for a 905-student school that will receive significant financial support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and include school choice students from other districts to maintain sufficient enrollment to provide a wide variety of courses. Another school of thought argues that Nauset has gone too far in filling its classrooms with school choice students and should design a smaller school to serve the four district towns that will be responsible for paying for the remade high school.

Those visions were shared Feb. 27 at a forum hosted by the Brewster Community Network at the Brewster Ladies’ Library. After describing the path that led to the current proposed project, which is eligible for a maximum state grant of $36.6 million that would reduce the cost to Brewster, Eastham, Orleans and Wellfleet to $95.1 million, building committee chairman Greg Levasseur warned that building a school smaller than the one recommended by the MSBA would require “starting all over again. The $36.6 million goes away. A smaller school for 600 to 700 kids would cost $126 million, all on the local district. That amount would have to be borne completely by the four towns.”

Another panelist, Dave Danish, said he was speaking for “the concerned taxpayers of the Nauset Regional High School renovation program,” a group “that doesn’t question the fact that the school is tired and in need of renovation or replacement.” What it does question is building a larger school when enrollment is declining, and basing its capacity on a steady stream of students from outside the district.

“Of the 921 students attending, only 616 reside in our district,” Danish said. “The rest are from neighboring towns that will not pay one penny toward the $131 million. All that cost is being put on the taxpayers.”

The 219 school choice students bring in $5,000 each to Nauset from their sending districts, which Danish noted doesn’t come close to the $20,500 per pupil cost of educating them. Eighty-six tuitioned students from Provincetown and Truro pay a negotiated amount much closer to the latter number.

The state average for schools’ percentage of school choice enrollment is 1.7, Danish said. “At Nauset High School, it’s 23.7 percent, 14 times the state average… To fill a school built for over 900 students, we will become even more dependent on students from outside our region… We are not asking for school choice to stop but that Nauset (stay) closer to the state average.” Danish referred the audience to his group’s website, noto905.com, for more information.

John O’Reilly, a Brewster member of the Nauset Regional School Committee, replied to a question from the audience about the effects of student population and school choice on the type and quality of educational programs at the high school.

“How we utilize choice is to provide some additional funding to allow those programs that you’ve heard about to be in existence,” he said. “The other thing that it provides us is a robust and diverse student population. So what we would envision if school choice were abruptly eliminated would be that eventually programs currently offered would suffer greatly.” O’Reilly said the district “has been using tuition from school choice to offset the operating budget. The $1.4 million accounts for 22 to 25 teachers. The additional money allows us to open up and provide a much wider program for kids.”

Then there’s the matter of retaining students from the four towns in the Nauset system. Another panelist, state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, said that about 37 students choice out of the system. “Most districts are finding it worthwhile to bring in kids at $5,000 a head,” he said. “The bigger concern we hear from legislators and local officials is that every time a school choice student leaves, it creates a hole in the district. In areas like Cape Cod and out west, the loss of school choice kids is very problematic. If you lose kids, you lose revenue, you have to cut programs, and you lose more kids. Your neighbors in (the) Dennis-Yarmouth (district) are losing about 400 kids to school choice, one of the largest numbers in the state.”

When the Sturgis Charter Public School opened in Hyannis, O’Reilly recalled, Nauset High lost a number of students. By 2014, the district sent 25 students to Sturgis. That year, he said, the charter school was the only high school on the Cape offering an International Baccalaureate program. Since Nauset added that option, he noted, “today there’s (just) 13 kids attending Sturgis. We’re pulling the kids back into our high school… Parents shop where they want to send their kids to school… If our program falls behind or is lacking, parents will send their children to Sturgis or choice out to another district.”

For the project to move forward, all four communities must approve it by at least a simple majority at town meeting and then pass a debt exclusion for funding at subsequent town elections. Costs will be apportioned based on a town’s enrollment. Levasseur said taxpayers can go to the building committee’s website (nausetbuildingproject.com) to see the estimated tax impact of the project.

Based on an estimated “conservative” 4.25 percent interest rate over 25 years (the actual term will be established by the regional school committee later this month), the owner of an Orleans property valued at $400,000 would pay an average of $109.56 per year, with payments declining from $145.71 in the first year (Fiscal Year 2025) to $73.55 in the last (FY 2029).