ORLEANS — Confusing and conflicting information from both sides of the debate over the proposed renovation and expansion of Nauset Regional High School is roiling the waters in the four district towns.
What appeared to be a final word (“No”) on further funding extensions from the Massachusetts State Building Authority was actually much more nuanced. Claims that approving the project at town meetings would require a two-thirds margin turn out be wrong.
“When a town borrows money to build a town project, a debt exclusion vote (at town meeting) requires two-thirds,” Town Administrator John Kelly told the select board Jan. 20, “and then a simple majority at the polls. The difference here is that the debt is the debt of the school district. We’re simply voting to approve their borrowing. We’re responsible to pay the annual principal and interest. The vote at town meeting is only a simple majority.”
Citing concerns about communities’ abilities to hold town meetings this spring as the pandemic continues, the Nauset Regional School Committee exercised its option to hold a district-wide vote on the building project March 30 rather than go to town meetings in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, and Wellfleet for approval. With mail-in balloting, proponents argue, it’s likely that more people will have an opportunity to express their opinion this way. Opponents say this route puts Brewster, which accounts for close to half of Nauset’s enrollment, at the mercy of the other towns whose citizens won’t have to come up with as much money for the project. Some also say the district-wide election short-circuits the opportunity to educate voters on the town meeting floor, but proponents say they face the same hurdle.
There’s another twist to the situation. A town meeting vote for the project would be contingent on passage of a debt exclusion article at a subsequent election. “A district-wide vote has no contingency,” Kelly said, “so it’s imperative that the town has, the same day, an election so that if the voters vote yes on both, we can pay our annual debt service without cutting our operating budget.”
That means that, for now, voters will get two ballots, one asking to approve the project and the other asking to exclude the associated debt from the town’s tax levy limit. With many expected to take advantage of voting by mail, Kelly said, “there’s some concern that people will be confused (and say), ‘I already voted. Why are you sending me another ballot?’ There’s got be education that if you vote in favor of the school project, you also vote in favor of the debt exclusion.”
Kelly said he has not heard anything further about the district’s back-up plan if the March 30 vote fails: an article for town meeting warrants for a total of nearly $100 million to bring the aged high school up to code and correct some other deficiencies. “The town in turn would have to put a ballot question on for a debt exclusion,” he said.
Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan said the regional committee “made it very clear that, on Jan. 4, they would hit the ground running with outreach and education. I just feel as if this board has an obligation to have information that’s clear and factually presented, and we’re not getting it.” He suggested inviting the regional and building committees and the district superintendent to attend the board’s Feb. 3 meeting.
“This situation reminds me a little bit of how the wastewater process was,” said board member Mefford Runyon. “It’s frustrating. Different sides to this present their case in different places at different times with no opportunity for knowledgeable people to answer statement or refute statements. If we are gonna get into this, which we are, I’d like to control it to the point where we’re not allowing either side to come in and talk to us by themselves, that we don’t recreate a situation where one side can’t answer the claims of the other.”
Board member Mark Mathison admitted he was “a little disappointed at the lack of information that’s come out. Unless somebody is watching every school committee meeting and catching every detail, nobody knows what’s going on… This can turn into a real fiasco unless we get some clarity.”
On Jan. 25, Brewster’s select board and finance committee were to host a meeting with the regional school committee, building committee, and the district superintendent. And on Jan. 21, the regional school committee met with the Orleans Finance Committee for a discussion of the mechanics of the budget process that included a look at how school choice works and the rationale behind its use at the middle school and high school.