ORLEANS — One of the few things that proponents and opponents of the Nauset Regional High School building project agree on is that district-wide in-person voting will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 30.
From discussions about addressing the needs of the 1970s school in Eastham begun nearly a decade ago to the current $132 million proposal before voters, there have been many efforts to inform and involve citizens of the four district towns. In the final days before the vote, the Orleans Citizens Forum hosted an information session that displayed some of the divides over the project, which is endorsed by all four towns’ select boards and three of their finance committees.
Panelist Lynn Bruneau, chairman of the Orleans Finance Committee, could have used a split screen as she delivered details of her membership’s 4-3-1 vote on Feb. 11 to support the project. Bruneau, who voted in favor, started with the negative votes.
One member said the proposed school’s capacity was 30 percent greater than required by current demographic trends, and that it was too dependent on school choice students from other districts whose sending towns only contribute $5,000 per child. Another doubted that an enrollment of 900 was required to maintain excellent educational programming and suggested obtaining a six-months extension from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to design a smaller school. A third urged delay because Orleans was faced with so many other major projects in the years ahead and had not done enough to boost town revenues.
The member who abstained said, according to Bruneau, that proposing an oversized school to support more diverse academic programs is “less than honest.” But, as a strong supporter of the school system, he did not want to delay construction.
Backers of the project on the committee stressed practical concerns. Delays would result in higher consultation and borrowing fees, regardless of the school’s ultimate size. An upgrade without some MSBA support would be costlier. One member called the project “a significant strategic item for our towns” and suggested that “we should be pulling back on other areas.” Bruneau said the high quality of educational opportunity at Nauset helps attract families and workers to an area 90 miles from the nearest big city.
Resident Larry Diaz called in to say excellent schools of 700 students in the Commonwealth rely far less on school choice enrollments. “We do not subsidize these (choice) students,” said panelist Judith Schumacher of Orleans, vice chair of the Nauset Regional School Committee. Earlier in the session, she cited a “positive economic stream” from a program “that has broadened and strengthened our curriculum and increased diversity at the school. It is not the per pupil cost, $20,000, versus $5,000. There’s a difference between fixed and variable costs… We have added classes and used school choice money to enrich the curriculum (for all students).”
School choice, Schumacher said, “is not on the ballot next Tuesday. What is on the ballot is our building scheme: retain over 60 percent of our buildings, correct all the structural issues, address the educational issues.”
“This is a building project,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said. “School choice is a question for another time. Today, there’s no less expensive option than the building project as proposed. Pulling the plug may get us a smaller school but not a less expensive one.”
The MSBA has approved a grant of $36,661,305 toward the total cost of $131,825,665. The four Nauset towns would have to pay $95,164,360 over 20 to 30 years, about $18 million for Orleans based on its current enrollment numbers. The interest rate has not been set, but a 25-year bond at 2.46 percent would cost an Orleans taxpayer $30.99 for each $100,000 of assessed property value in the first year.
Whatever the outcome on March 30, school choice will continue to be debated. The requisite number of Orleans residents signed a petition to put a resolution on the May town meeting warrant that calls on Nauset to “resolve the financial inequity” of the current program by accepting no more new choice students until they represent 2 percent or less of the student population. The resolution also calls for reopening Nauset’s contract with the towns of Provincetown and Truro, to take their high school students on a tuition basis, and to add those towns to the district, “with full participation of operating and capital costs including the upcoming school expansion/renovation.”
On March 30, voters in Orleans, Brewster, Eastham and Wellfleet will see two ballots, one for a district-wide yes or no on the project and another, from the town, asking to exclude the debt from the Proposition 2½ tax levy limit.