April 15, 2009

Somerset-Berkley High School Regionalization

I promised some folks I would take some notes on the Somerset-Berkley High School regionalization information meeting that took place on April 14. These are a much compressed version of those notes, my impressions and highlights from the meeting.

I have created a separate website for this subject on Ning called "Somerset-Berkley School Regionalization :Toward a high-quality and sustainable learning environment for our children." There's also a Facebook page for it.

First, I'd like to disclose that I am for regionalization because I believe that it is the only way we can sustain a high quality of education for our students. I've listened to details and they have convinced me that the state is offering a very good deal to our communities.

The focus of this blog post will be questions asked and answers given. I am leaving out many details, such as who asked the questions, or which representative of MSBA answered the question because I want a concise representation of the most important points I heard. The questions and answers below are my paraphrasings of the actual questions and answers, and though they may have suffered in the attempt to summarize, my intent is to give some detail in a concise presentation.

Some initial facts from the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) :

We're being offered a model school that has already been designed and used in other regions. this pre-existing design (the model school) offers a great cost savings to us and to the state.

If we choose to use a model school, MSBA offers an additional 5 percentage points of funding, on top of the 6 points of funding for regionalization. Another two points of funding are being offered for the building of a green school, for a total of 13 points of additional funding.

Many questions and answers continue "below the fold."

Q: What town would the school be in?

A: That would be up to the towns to decide. It would definitely be possible to build the new school behind the existing SHS and then demolish SHS. MSBA would assist in the cost of demolishing SHS and abatement which would have to occur because of hazardous materials in the old school.

Q: Will they still be able to fund this school if sale tax revenues continue to drop, as they have been?

A: The money promised once we vote to go forward and commit to the school appears to be guaranteed by the state. The money will be set aside. Part of the reason they are urging us to move forward quickly is that construction costs are lower in the current economic environment, and they are confident about the available money and estimates in the short term. If we drag our feet for a year, the same conditions will not exist and much of what is advantageous about the current project will begin to disappear.

Q: Can we have a faรงade that looks similar to the current school, with the columns and the bell tower?

A: Yes. Norwood had a similar concern, and they're getting columns and a bell tower much like their beloved, original school.


Q: How would the regionalized school be governed?

A: That's a detail that we would begin to work out once the independent analysis is done, but there are a number of ways that successful regional schools work. We'd work out some percentage of either elected or appointed school board officials based on student population.

Q: Are fields and tracks included?

A: Yes, but they would be basic track and field facilities. The towns would have to pay the difference for expanded outdoor facilities.

Q: What happens in the case that one town is very supportive of a school budget and the other town balks?

A: A school budget must be passed by both towns at separate town meetings. If the budget fails to pass at one of the town meeting, the budget goes back to the school committee. Then it's back to a vote at town meetings. If the budget fails twice at individual town meeting there would be a combined town meeting from both towns to allow the majority to have a vote on the budget based on who shows up to that giant meeting.

Q: What would the timeline be for completion of the school?

A: Approx 18-24 months from the agreement to go forward. So, we're possibly looking at a school within 3 years.

Q: What are the numbers on funding?

A: It looks like we're being offered an approximately $70 million school and Somerset would be contributing $17 million of that. (need some verification on the numbers)

Q: What will the state help with in the 3 years that students are stuck in a school that is falling apart?

A: Once we are committed to the regionalization, the state may look at helping with SHS maintenance issues. It's not something they like to do, but it may be cheaper to repair the school knowing it would only have to last 3 years.

Q: Next steps?

A: The towns have to vote to approve moving forward with regionalization planning. Some of that would be funded by both towns, but the state could also kick in a small amount of money in the form of a planning grant. Partly a symbolic gesture of a three way partnership on moving forward with this.

Q: What if the student population percentages shift? Would the distribution of the cost of the school also shift?

A: The building costs would be fixed, and each town would be responsible for those costs. However the future operating costs would naturally be adjusted yearly according to student population.

Q: Will MSBA assist in regionalization?

A: MSBA has staff to help with the process and resources to help us find legal assistance and other professional help for the services they cannot themselves provide. Yes, they would be a partner in helping to make the regionalization go smoothly. Also, planning grants would be available to us to help defray some costs.

At this point in the meeting Selectman Meehan stood up and made it clear to the audience that he is committed to doing what he can to make this process work.

Q: What about issues with teacher and custodial retirees and unions?

A: These are among details that would have to be worked out.

Q: What about memorials present in the current high school?

A: Again, a detail that the planning board would need to answer.

Q: What happens if there are cost overruns on the model school?

A; Their experience building this school means they have a handle on keeping costs within the budget. In the event there was a possibility of overrun, there are adjustments they can make (hypothetically) like removing some fancy finish work.

Q: When would MSBA pull the offer off the table if we were to drag our feet?

A: After a year, much of the cost benefits would start to go away. They are eager to strike while we are in a unique position to benefit. Also, they have a primary concern for the Berkley students who are without a school and in an arrangement that runs out at the end of this year. The students with the greatest need are their greatest concern. They didn't say they would refuse to help Somerset if we were to lose the Berkley students, but it is clear that Somerset would be a less urgent concern than a bunch of students with no high school.

Q: Is this full school regionalization?

A: No. We're just talking about the high school.

Q: if we decide not to regionalize, would Somerset be on the hook for the entire cost of a new high school?

A: With the loss of the Berkley students, MSBA hasn't considered in detail the situation Somerset would be in. However, it was clear to this audience member that it would be a not very good situation at all.

The problem of what to do with Berkley students would need to be resolved first.

Q: Are officials committed to making this regionalization move forward?

A; Victor Machado of the Somerset School Committee said that he hopes the independent report comes back and tells us that this is a very good deal for the students of Somerset and Berkley, and that both towns should move forward. In that case he will be behind the plan 100%. But until those details come back, he feels he hasn't done the most responsible thing for the people he represents. Representatives of the Berkley citizens expressed their strong support of the project, with a poll showing that 77% of the residents there also support regionalization.

Q: What are we looking for in this report?

A: Primarily financial details about how this will affect the towns. For example, the effect this agreement will have on the towns over time, rather than just the shorter term considerations.

Q: How long will the report take?

A: Four to six weeks, expected.

Posted by James at April 15, 2009 12:42 AM
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