Pandemic Uncertainties Prompt One-Day Vote For Nauset HS Project

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Nauset Regional High School

Nauset Regional High School.  FILE PHOTO

NORTH EASTHAM — Traditional town meetings next spring may not be a sure thing, but one thing is certain: the Massachusetts School Building Authority is not offering an extension beyond May 31 for its financial support of a redeveloped Nauset Regional High School.

With a $36 million state contribution to the $132 million project on the line, the regional school committee voted last week to abandon plans to bring the project to town meetings that might again be delayed past May. It will instead seek to schedule a vote in all four district towns on the same day in March.

Should that referendum pass, the four towns would contribute $96 million to the $132 million redevelopment project. Should it fail, the committee would ask town meetings in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, and Wellfleet for approximately $98 million to bring the existing campus up to code and correct some other deficiencies, with no help from the MSBA.

At the committee’s meeting Dec. 10, chair Chris Easley recalled that, more than five years ago, Nauset “determined we didn’t have the funds necessary to do repair and maintenance and were reticent to ask the towns for overrides on a yearly basis” for the then 45-year-old high school in Eastham. In conversations with the four towns, it was decided to apply for a spot on the MSBA’s list of projects for which partial support could be provided. After years of community meetings and design work, the project was ready for voters earlier this year, “when the pandemic threw some challenges in the path of this process,” Easley said.

The traditional window for approval of school projects is narrow. All four town meetings and all subsequent debt exclusion balloting must take place within 60 days – far from a sure thing in the upcoming second year of the pandemic. There is another option, which was exercised recently by Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in its successful building project request: a district-wide vote on the same day.

“This can no longer wait,” said committee vice chair Judith Schumacher. “If the pandemic has done nothing else, it has shown us we can’t continue just putting Band-Aids and bubble gum on the school. We spent a lot of money getting the air quality up so kids could go back to school in September after a delayed start. I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Something has to be done to the school, and it has to be done starting this calendar year.”

If the district-wide vote failed, “We would still have the option to go to towns at their next town meetings – it wouldn’t matter if it happened in spring or not – and ask just for the building code upgrade,” Schumacher said. “At that point, we will have lost state funding, and it’s not coming back… Given the dire need of renovation at the high school to begin to address the needs to bring it up to health and safety standards for the students, something has to be done this year… We can no longer afford to kick this can down the road.”

A building code update-only scenario was part of the design process for the high school. The initial estimate of $91 million did not address a variety of existing issues including use of windowless, unventilated former storage areas as classrooms; the need for more teaching space; the locker and shower rooms in the basement of the gym, poorly ventilated and accessible only by stairs; and the under-sized cafeteria that requires scheduling three shifts for lunch, starting at 10:45 a.m. Addressing those concerns would bring the code upgrade cost to $98 million, all of it paid by the member towns.

“It’s important to remember that that upgrade could get us 20 or 25 years and we’ll be addressing this problem again,” said committee member Tom Fitzgibbons. On the other hand, “The new school is projected to last 40 to 50 years, like the existing one has.”

Committee member Josh Stewart said he supported the same-day vote option, but “my one concern with it is that we do lose that traditional sales pitch opportunity on the floor of town meeting where we do have a captive audience of voters to show them the hard facts of a $96 million renovation versus a $98 million code upgrade… I’m glad to hear that public outreach is ramping up. We don’t want people going to vote in March unaware of the consequences of a ‘no’ vote. That’s on all of us, that everyone knows more than what they read on the ballot.”

Delaying the vote to 2021 has had one positive effect. Building committee chair Greg Levasseur said the interest rate for financing the project has been reduced from 3.25 percent to 2.5. “The cost per town and individual is coming down,” he said of new numbers that will be posted on the project’s website,