ORLEANS — Is it worth it to the citizens of the four member towns of the Nauset school system to pay for a revamped high school that will serve their children but also hundreds of students from other Cape communities which will not help pay for the project?
That’s a question that has caused deep divisions in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, and Wellfleet, including split votes on a couple of finance committees and angry exchanges between supporters and critics leading up to the March 30 district-wide vote on the $131 million project, $36 million of which is expected to be subsidized by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Proponents say that the addition of school choice students from other communities provides the critical mass that allows Nauset Regional High School to earn high rankings for its diversity of academics and electives, including a slew of Advanced Placement courses and an International Baccalaureate program. They argue that the $5,800 or so per child that comes with choice students from their sending districts brings in valuable revenue that helps to maintain strong and broad educational options that allow Nauset to retain students from its own towns.
To opponents, the numbers don’t add up. Why, they ask, should a town like Brewster have to pay nearly half the cost of the district’s share of the new school over the next few decades when its children make up about 30 percent of the actual enrollment? Why isn’t a smaller school, one sized to the district itself, on the table rather than one designed for 905 students?
Two figures in juxtaposition – the $5,800 that comes into the system for each school choice student and the approximately $20,918 per pupil expenditure for Nauset High – have led some to charge that the system is losing close to $15,000 a year per student and could save millions if school choice were abandoned. School supporters say that no such savings would occur, pointing out that choice students are simply being added to already available spaces in classes.
Brewster’s finance committee voted 5 to 3 against the project to remake the 50-year-old high school last month. The Orleans Finance Committee had its turn Feb. 11, voting 4 to 3 in favor with one member abstaining.
“Should we reject this plan, it’s back to the drawing board,” member Nick Athanasiou said. “We could see a delay of, who knows, up to three years (and a) very low probability of state support after rejecting the $37 million in this round. We have to consider during this delay facing considerable new maintenance cost to patch the existing high school. I conclude we would be buying a smaller school with fewer educational programs for considerably more dollars. That doesn’t make any sense to me.’
The timing of the project was wrong for Russ Lavoie, who said his decision had “nothing to do with the school committee. It’s their job to advocate.” His concern is that with the “multiple needs” of Orleans over the next five to ten years – the schools, the sewer system, the library, a community center - “what I don’t see, other than putting the primary burden on taxpayers, is that I see virtually no effort to increase the revenue and business base of the town… Until such time as I have confidence the town has the ability to find ways to raise money other than to put the burden on taxpayers, I’m hard pressed to do anything.”
Ed Mahoney said he favored “a new and remodeled high school, but not the one designed and recommended by the school committee.” He said the proposed project “does not take into account demographic trends that predict an enrollment drop… which will make the district increasingly dependent on school choice to fill desks and keep teachers and staff at current levels… The costs and benefits of school choice have not been determined to the satisfaction of taxpayers. The statement that it does not cost taxpayers anything is as inaccurate as the statement that school choice costs district taxpayers $15,000 a year” per choice student.
Roger Pearson acknowledged that “there are a lot of potential issues” about the project and that “education to our citizens is poor. It ought to be at town meeting so all can have a discussion.” But given that the decision will be made by a district-wide vote instead, “I have to step back… This is truly one of the strategic chances for our area. We can pull back (elsewhere). This one, we can’t put it off.”
Bob Renn said there was “no evidence” that the regional school committee or building committee “spent any time evaluating the difference between the total $20,000 cost per pupil and the $5,000 reimbursement cost of the school choice program at the high school. This decision effectively locked the district into school choice for the next 20 to 30 years.” Although he urged a “no” vote, Renn said “I believe the door remains open with recourse to the MSBA. I believe a six-month extension should be requested, and based on the work done, a high school for 700 students that phases out school choice can be rapidly developed and presented to the four towns in the next four months for special town meetings and elections next fall.”
Committee chair Lynn Bruneau listed the competitive advantages of Nauset High and its high ranking statewide. “We don’t want to risk academic excellence by voting against this project,” she said. As to the expense, she noted that Orleans’ share of the debt over the next few decades would be $18 million, much less than the $59 million for the downtown sewer and treatment plant, the $13 million for the new DPW facility, or the $11 million for the new police station. “Isn’t the cost of quality education worth at least as much as the new DPW, the new police station?” she asked.
Tim Counihan abstained, admitting he was “a little bit torn over this issue… I felt there wasn’t sufficient financial oversight. They wanted to have more extensive programs. I think we would have been much better served if they’d just been open and honest about that.” Nevertheless, he called himself “a big proponent of the school systems. We’re fortunate on the Cape to only spend roughly 25 to 30 percent of the towns’ budgets on the schools. I guess I’m sort of abstain to maybe loosely positive” on the project.
A vote whether to recommend was on the agenda for the select board last night (Feb. 17), with member Mark Mathison, a member of the Nauset High faculty and head of the teachers union, planning to recuse himself from the discussion. Weekly public information sessions on the project are being televised every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on cable Channel 22 and can be joined live via Zoom with Webinar ID number 919 2460 2088. A discussion of school choice, with time for questions and answers, is set for March 3.