State: now is the time for Wellington

I* just returned from the community wide forum on the Wellington Elementary school project. The meeting at the Chenery Middle School was lightly attended, with around 70 people in audience to hear town officials and Kathy Craven of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) answer questions about the pending debt exclusion to fund reconstruction of Wellington Elementary. 

Craven, who left four young children in the care of her physician husband to attend the meeting, was given the opportunity to speak first and answer questions. Her message to the assembled was loud and clear: now is the time to do the Wellington. And, should Belmont fail to pass the debt exclusion, the town shouldn’t expect to see money like the $12.4m that’s being offered now anytime soon. In particular, Craven said that MSBA grants, which are funded directly from state sales tax revenue, have been based on an assumption that sales tax revenues will grow by around 3.5% annually, not drop, as they have in the last year. The result will be a steep decline in grants — if not an outright moratorium on state aid for school construction projects like the Wellington “by the middle of the next decade,” Craven said. The funding for Wellington has been set aside for Belmont and will be available to the town the minute voters fund the remainder of the project, she said. 

Asked (by me) what would happen to the $12.4m allocated for Belmont should the debt exclusion fail, Craven said that the money would be given to other towns. “Given the timing of these projects, it wouldn’t be fair to hold onto that money,” she said. 

Craven also pointed out that, based on the experiences of other towns such as Norwood, Belmont voters could be pleasantly surprised by the estimates returned by builders once the project is sent out to bid. Norwood, she said, estimated its new High School would cost $80m to build, but settled on a bid for just $66m — a sign of the buyers market for construction projects in state. 

The meeting also included presentations by School Committee Chairwoman Anne Rittenburg, Treasurer Floyd Carmen, Pat Brusch, Vice Chair of the Wellington Building Committee, Joel Mooney of the Permanent Building Committee, as well as Jonathan Levy architects and others. Questions from the audience were polite and treaded on familiar territory: managing cost overruns, the challenge of relocating Wellington students, alternatives to the proposed building plan. Selectman Angelo Firenze asked for a commitment that any savings in the project would not be used to expand the scope of the project — a pledge that Brush readily gave, while pointing out that the very building that hosted the event was an example of the town’s ability to do large school construction projects on time and under budget. The Chenery Building Committee will return more than $600,000 in unused construction bond funds to the town at an upcoming Town Meeting.

(*) I am a member of both Town Meeting and The Belmont School Committee.  Read the caveats about me and my opinions on the About page.