‘Concerned citizens’ group petitions for school board to rescind middle school vote

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 02-20-2024 5:14 PM

Modified: 02-21-2024 8:37 AM


Jeff Wells wants the Concord School Board to go back to the drawing board on their $176 million plans to build a new middle school on the city’s east side. And he’s not alone.

Along with a dozen other residents known as Concerned Citizens for Concord, Wells is calling for the school board to rescind their December vote to approve a new building near the Broken Ground and Mill Brook schools.

Without firm cost estimates, the current multi-million dollar project was hastily approved by a small number of board members who hold a great deal of power in the city, he said.

“We’re very, very concerned that this is near impossible,” he said. “The city can’t afford it.”

The origin of the group stems from several members testifying at recent school board meetings about cost concerns regarding the $176 million price tag of the proposed project.

Now, they’ve come together with a more narrow multi-step mission. First, have the school board rescind their December vote. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion to rescind can be made at a meeting, as long as no irrevocable actions have been made – like cutting a check or breaking ground on construction.

To call for this, the group is circulating an online petition on Change.org. Prior to the city council’s December discussion on the Beaver Meadow golf course clubhouse renovations, Bob Maccini, a Concerned Citizens group member, did the same. That petition garnered 568 signatures.

Similar to the Beaver Meadow petition, the goal is not to eliminate a new middle school in its entirety, said Wells. Instead, it’s to hit pause on the process and provide more transparency with firm costs and public input considered.

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The petition states that reconsidering the vote will not impact state-building aid awards. Concord is set to apply for assistance in the next fiscal year. It also notes that two school board members who voted in favor of Broken Ground are no longer on the board, and that the decision contradicted the “publicly expressed majority opinion.”

That in itself merits a redo, said Wells.

“They were comparing nothing to nothing. They didn’t have an actual cost. They didn’t have a completed traffic study at either site. They didn’t have the cost of remediation. We need a true comparison, the pros and cons of each, and comparisons of costs itemized,” he said. “When you’re talking about spending $175 million, it’s mind-boggling.”

When Charlie Russell, a longtime Concord resident and attorney, took to the microphone at the Dec. 11 city council meeting, he had several costs he wanted to discuss regarding the golf clubhouse.

To piece together his numbers and project timeline, Russell used the state’s Right-to-Know law to request documents and reports from council members. He now wants to apply the same level of watchdog detail to the middle school.

And that involves breaking down the middle school proposal piece by piece. Plans currently include a 900-seat auditorium for the school, but after research into surrounding school districts, like Nashua – that’s a superfluous addition in many of the schools.

Line-by-line scrutiny will allow taxpayers to track the overall costs of the project – and in turn suggest cuts to bring the price tag down.

“Let’s not make these decisions that are irreversible and supposedly irreversible down the line,” he said.

The next order of business would be to address the power of the board members. Concord is the only district in the state that has an autonomous school board – meaning board actions require no approval from a secondary body.

Wells hopes that taxpayers would have a larger stake in decisions, whether that be a vote on project bonds or other input, aside from electing members.

“For example, if they come up with another project for over $500 million, guess what, you don’t proceed until the voters agree to that,” he said. “There’s got to be a clear definition of what the project is, which there hasn’t been.”

Russell sees parallels between a proposal to build a new Whittier Tech regional school in Haverhill, Mass. The project would have cost over $440 million, with eleven towns sending students.

But the glaring difference is the public input. Residents voted on the Whittier proposal in January – with 10 out of the 11 towns rejecting the plan – bringing it to a standstill.

In Concord, there is a joint committee between city council and school board members. However, that group has not met in recent months.

Now with public input, the Concerned Citizens group hopes to bring to light genuine questions about costs and needs in the district, while balancing taxpayer concerns.

The group plans to launch a website in the coming days and continue to meet to develop action items and public demonstrations. While state legislatures and school board members will meet at Concord High School at 7:30 a.m. to talk about state building aid, Concerned Citizens for Concord plans to be outside the school distributing their petition.

“Throwing money out to build a nice shiny facility doesn’t mean your test scores and your achievement levels are going to increase,” said Russell. “It’s not an anti-school group. It’s a ‘what can we do right?’ ”