A town-wide vote on a debt exclusion for the construction of a new Wellington Elementary school is unlikely to coincide with this November’s general election, according to a story posted on The Belmont Citizen Herald’s Web page. BCH editors and reporters interviewed State Treasurer Tim Cahill and other members of the State’s School Building Authority and pressed them for details of the status of the Wellington proposal, which the town has been mulling for almost a decade, even as conditions at the Wellington have festered (and the final price tag has ballooned). The Town’s plans, drawn up years ago, are now before the School Building Authority, but MSBA Executive Director Katherine Craven’s chief of staff, Matthew Donovan is quoted as saying that it’s unlikely that the Town will get the green light in time to get ballot language to Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office by the deadline, next week.
According to Donovan, School Committee officials were told a few weeks ago that there was still a ways to go with the proposal — though its not clear if they were told that approval in time for the November election was impossible.
A number of factors seem to be complicating the already complicated approval process. A moratorium on new school building projects created an enormous backlog of requests by towns. By the time that was lifted, a souring economy and new programs, such as the Chapter 58 health reforms, have put the state’s balance sheet out of whack, even as soaring raw materials cost have cause construction costs to soar. The net effect seems to be that the SBA is applying extra scrutiny to every request and hedging its bets on which will be approved, and when, with additional design reviews and other hurdles that must be cleared before approval is given. Asked directly when Wellington parents should expect approval, Cahill punted.
“I don’t want to give [Wellington parents] hope because I’m not sure,” Treasurer Cahill is quoted as saying. “We are not going to do anything that we are not prepared … that we don’t feel confident … that there is control over.”
Cahill has been battling publicly with the Patrick Administration over cost control. Most recently, he has floated a plan to standardize school designs for the state, allowing communities to choose from a small number of possible designs rather than doing each new school as a custom project. The plan comes, in part, in response to mushrooming projects like the Newton North High School, currently projected to cost $197 million. It doesn’t seem as if Belmont’s plans — and those of other communities — are running afoul of the standardization scheme, though it’s also unclear what the nature of design reviews that are delaying approval are.
Putting the Wellington issue before voters in November was widely seen as a good thing. This year’s closely followed Presidential election is expected to drive huge turnout at the polls, and would have ensured that a broad swath of the town’s voting population got to weigh in on the debt exclusion to fund the new school. By comparison, fewer than 5,000 voters — or around 32% of eligible voters in town — voted down a $2.5m debt exclusion for road construction in June.