New North Dorchester High School: Who will pay for it?

MD-North Dorchester High School budget_3x

Special to the Dorchester Banner/Gloria Rojas
Construction of a new North Dorchester High is necessary, everyone agrees—but who is going to pay for it?

CAMBRIDGE — The aftermath of a small portion, perhaps 20 minutes, of the March 26 Dorchester County budget work session, produced an intense internet discussion among citizens both pro and con. A consensus had to be reached on the weighty decision of moving forward with plans to replace the aging campus of North Dorchester High School (NDHS) and including it in the FY2016 budget bill.

The 63-year-old school no longer meets the needs of its students. No one argued that point. The council unanimously agreed with many north county residents the school should be replaced. The sticking point came with funding. The NDHS building committee, composed of school officials, academicians, parents, and local residents, focuses on what the school should look like to meet the needs of all constituents and asks for community input. The County Council appropriates funds to pay for school construction. In doing so the Council must examine every possible source of money.

At the recent Council work session, the school administration asked the Council to move forward toward the goal of a new high school campus. The agenda item was of special interest to the north county. Several residents attended to show support for the construction of a new school. Representatives of the county school system, including Superintendent Dr. Henry Wagner, also attended to support construction. The Council had to reach a consensus, or “agreement to proceed,” on whether or not to move forward with the project in the FY2016 budget.

While some north county citizens are opposed to the construction based on the almost certain need to raise taxes, no one appeared at the session to press that point of view. They were represented by Councilmen Rick Price and William Nichols, who consistently oppose calls for higher taxes.

In an interview with The Banner, Director Mike Spears said the total proposed cost to replace the school is $43.6 million. For the construction phase the state will pay for 76 percent of that cost, or $23.4 million. The county is responsible for $20.2 million which includes the balance of construction plus all attendant costs including planning and design.

Mr. Spears emphasized that the issue is not a “done deal.” By giving consensus to continue, the project can be included in the Council’s budget bill. The 2-year planning and design phase will cost $3.3 million. The FY2016 annual County capital budget will include $1.4 million for planning and design. Part of the work session discussion centered on options to finance that amount including leaving it in PAYGO or including it in a bond.

The March 26 work session was held to “give guidance on what to put in the proposed (budget) bill” said Director Spears. A final work session is scheduled for April 2 in preparation for the FY2016 budget bill introduction. Following introduction on April 21, public hearings are slated for May 5 and 12 with a final adoption vote on May 19.

When asked for a consensus, Councilman Tom Bradshaw voted “yes”; Councilman Rick Price initially voted “yes” with the stipulation that “the county and the school administration look for ways to lower the costs. “In my view there has to be consideration of the taxes. There are other options out there to be looked into.”

Mr. Spears noted that the millions required “cannot be financed without a tax increase” because the new debt would be over the current level of debt service. He explained that the County would miss 2 of 6 requirements for debt service; 2 of which are legal requirements and 4 are part of internal fiscal policy. Based on the amount and budget projections, Director Spears said without new taxes the debt would spike above the County’s current level of debt. By 2018 he estimated a 2.5¢ property tax increase will be required.

In FY2014 County revenues were $64.3 million and $64.2 million in FY2015. If the downward trend continues, FY2016 will have less with which to do more.

Council President Ricky Travers explained, “The biggest problem is finding the money. At the same time we need the money (for the school) we have to figure out how we’re going to buy police cars, ambulances, and all of the other services in the county along with paying our employees. It’s not just ‘do we feel like the school is needed’ it’s just going into debt so far.” Rehabilitating the current school is, says Councilman Travers, “not worth it.” He explained that the County would have to pay more of the cost because the amount of state aid would be substantially less. He noted that the percentages of aid are almost reversed for rehab costs. The state pays about 24 percent and the county assumes 76 percent.

The vote to continue the process resumed as Councilman Don Satterfield voted “yes,” Councilman William Nichols voted “no,” Councilman Price changed his vote to “no,” and President Travers broke the tie with a “yes” vote.

In the past, costs for planning and design were included in bonds. In an interview with The Banner, Councilman Price explained that he conferred with the finance department and found no “record of a previous tax increase ever used to pay for school construction or repair.” He emphasized that he has supported the need for a new school for many years. His problem is a lack of clarity on payment alternatives. By agreeing to continue with the planning and design phase, he felt he would have been setting a precedent to increase taxes for future school construction projects and suggested investigating the private/public funding of schools being done in other counties and states.

Councilman Nichols explained that many people in his district are in difficult financial straits. “Some folks have to decide every month whether to buy food or medicine. Taxes will hurt the older folks.” Councilman Nichols has consistently voted against projects that would raise taxes.

President Travers said “we have looked everywhere to find different funding sources … The state did not help by cutting the highway user funds and shoving the pensions back at us.” Councilman Travers added, “We’re going to have to explain to the public that we have to pay these bills. We have tried every way possible to pay for planning and design out of our budget and not going to bond for it. That is money that should be spent on paving roads, ambulances, dump trucks, snow plows. It’s a very fine line that we’re walking here.”

Federal and state Sunshine Laws require government entities to hold meetings in public except those meeting Executive Session exceptions. The County Council follows those regulations. County residents frequently comment that they would like to attend the budget bill public hearings if they could hear what was being said, particularly at the rear of the chamber.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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