Hopkinton school board pulls back on $30M facility project

  • Hopkinton High School was ranked as the number one New Hampshire high school by U.S. News & World Report for the third year in a row, April 21, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Budget Committee member Janet Krzyzaniak (left) listens with Richard Houston during a meeting. Caitlin Andrews /Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

It’s back to the drawing board for the Hopkinton School District and its proposed multimillion-dollar facility project.

The school board voted this week to rescind their warrant article that would have asked taxpayers to approve a $30 million bond. The project would have encompassed various long-deferred maintenance projects, including some necessary to bring the district into compliance with New England’s secondary school accreditation organization, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

The board decided to shutter the proposal due to a lack of public support, said superintendent Steve Chamberlin during a Hopkinton Budget Committee meeting Wednesday night.

But the removal of the project was just the prelude to a long and sometimes difficult discussion about the school district’s future – and what the town can afford.

“We have lost a lot of people in our town who cannot afford to pay taxes,” said Budget Committee member Janet Krzyzaniak. “Young people, old people – we can’t keep going at this rate.”

Put on hold

Despite the project being dead, some proposed improvements to the schools remain.

Chamberlin said the district was awarded a $317,000 state grant for school safety projects that will be put toward improving the schools’ security systems if the board’s budget is approved. The grant is an 80/20 matching program, so the district’s remaining cost for the project would be about $79,000, for a total project cost of $397,000, according to Chamberlin’s figures.

He said improvements will probably entail a buzzer/video system that would allow staff to control access to buildings, as well as a card system that senior students could use to leave and enter the building during their open campus periods.

“That gets us into improvement, not best practices,” Chamberlin said of the security upgrades.

The district was also recently awarded a $63,000 state grant for a sprinkler system, but that was tied to a bigger infrastructure project. The district does not have to act on that grant right away, Chamberlin said.

Had the project moved forward, it would have proposed $22.4 million worth of upgrades to the district’s roofs, electrical and sprinkler systems, accessibility, and safety and security systems, as well as a $5.1 million expansion and renovation of the Hopkinton Middle High School science facilities.

Some aspects, like the security and science classrooms, are needed to keep the district from being put on probation by NEASC.

The project would have had a tax rate impact of $3.22 per $1,000 of assessed property value in fiscal year 2020.

The project drew immediate concern from the town’s budget committee, which voted informally against the proposal, 9-1, last week and asked the school board to reconsider the project.

It also caught the attention of the select board, which voted to oppose the project, after close to an hour of debate Monday night, due to its projected impact on the town’s tax rate, according to a video of the meeting.

Tax impact still in question

The controlled-access upgrades increase the school board’s operating budget to $20 million, a 3.37 percent increase over last year’s budget and a 15-cent impact on the tax rate.

That didn’t sit well with some members of the budget committee, who had asked the school board last week to develop a budget with no increases. School board member Matt Belanger said the board was uncomfortable making any additional cuts.

“I’m still shocked at the $800,000 in increases,” said Budget Committee member Don Houston, referring to the collective increases in the district’s salaries, benefits, professional services and additional costs. “If the bond didn’t go away, that would be astronomical.”

The district this year retired a 20-year bond for a $7 million renovation of Maple Street Elementary School and Hopkinton Middle High School. That freed up $553,500, about $173,000 of which was part of the state’s catatonic school building aid program.

Houston then asked if Hopkinton could continue to afford the quality of its schools.

“Maybe we can’t be No. 1 anymore,” he said. “Maybe we have to be less, whatever the ramifications may be.”

U.S. News & World Report ranks high schools across the country each year based on test scores, college readiness and student-teacher ratio. Hopkinton was ranked first for New Hampshire for three years; last year, it slipped to second, behind Hollis-Brookline.

Houston’s statement prompted concern from Belanger. He said many people, including himself, moved to Hopkinton for its schools, and cutting from its programs could have a bad impact.

“We’ve got to increase the tax base somehow,” he said. “This is a town issue ... there has to be another way that doesn’t affect programs.”

Enrollment in the district has increased every year since 2014, from 847 then to 942 this school year. But so has the district’s tax impact, going from $21.09 in 2014 to $24.16 in 2017.

The budget has risen steadily as well, going from $16.2 million in actual expenditures during the 2013-14 school year to a $19 million operating budget this school year.

For some residents, that mounting increase may prove to be too much.

“I’ve been here since I was 6 years old,” Krzyzaniak said, adding that increasing the tax rate could force her to leave her home.

“I can’t keep going, there’s no way,” she said. “And I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, there’s a lot of people worse off than me. But we have to decide ... we need to understand that we just can’t keep upping the taxes every year.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)