2018-02-08 / Front Page

Town seeks $6.7M for school repairs

Voters would weigh in on $5.9M bond in November

The town councilors gave their blessing Monday night for the school department to forward a $6.71 million application to the state for infrastructure repairs at the schools in the next five years.

The application, which includes a bond referendum for $5.87 million on November’s ballot, now heads to the state Department of Education for approval. Even if the plan were endorsed at the next level, however, the town could abandon the proposal if taxpayers weren’t supportive.

“We could withdraw the application if we thought the bond wouldn’t get passed,” Town Administrator Andy Nota said.

The plan, which was mulled by a joint working group of town and school officials, was drafted by Robinson Green Beretta Architects. It is separate from the district’s operating budget that is passed annually at the financial town meeting.

This plan stems from the statewide assessment released in November by Jacobs Engineering that estimated $16.3 million in improvements to get Melrose and Lawn schools into ideal shape. That figure, however, only included about $60,000 in critical repairs to keep the doors open or for them to be deemed “clean, dry and safe.” The assessors said the buildings were in “overall very good condition.”

This application is necessary to receive reimbursement from the state. According to the district’s maintenance director, Peter Anderson, the minimum is 35 percent reimbursement for projects approved by the state. That number could increase to 45 percent because of certain incentives. Because the plan addresses a few of these enticements, including renewable energy, remediation of toxic materials and the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, Nota is confident the town will receive at least 39 percent reimbursement.

While the number is daunting, more than half of that $6.71 million is earmarked for roof improvements. To repair the roofs, which have surpassed their 25- year warranties, it would cost $2.45 million. That number inflates to $3.4 million, however, because of proposed solar panels.

According to Nota, the schools use a combined 400,000 kilowatts per hour of electricity annually. The two arrays, however, would generate close to a half-megawatt each year, which is 500,000 kilowatts. The remaining energy would be added to the power grid. The town, which uses approximately 2 million megawatts annually, could then use that energy to subsidize other municipal buildings.

“Why wouldn’t we want to use the excess to pay down our bill?” Nota asked rhetorically.

At current electricity rates, Nota said, the district pays $80,000 annually for its electricity. That means the solar panels would be paid for within seven years, assuming the town is reimbursed for the project by the state.

“This process is not in vain,” Anderson said. “It will be fruitful in the end.”

The remaining $3.3 million will be used on mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades for equipment that is reaching the end of its useful life, according to Anderson.

That includes $730,000 to replace HVAC controls at both buildings, $200,000 to replace boilers at Melrose and $175,000 to replace a generator at Lawn. The middle school, which was built in 1951, also needs $375,000 for asbestos abatement and $420,000 to replace the windows.

According to Tracy Donnelly, an associate with the RGB firm, the wood frames for the windows have deteriorated so much the entire assembly must be removed to the masonry opening.

The application also sets aside money at the middle school to build a secure entrance into the gymnasium, repoint the brick exterior, reconfigure the fifth-grade wing and replace fuel tanks.

Lawn, which is 40 years older than its neighboring school, accounts for nearly 60 percent of the application.

According to Nota, the public should not be transfixed on the $6.71 million figure. For example, taxpayers only would be on the hook for $3.23 million of the $5.87 million bond if the district maximizes the reimbursement. That means during the 20-year bond, the town would pay $4.8 million, which includes interest.

“Our challenge is educating the community about the real cost,” he said. “We also could better our rate over the years, which will shift the debt dramatically. It could go down hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Moreover, Nota said, debt service for Melrose School comes off the books in 2021-22. That is costing taxpayers about $240,000 annually, which is similar to his estimated debt service if this plan were to be approved. Taxpayers only would be responsible for a maximum of two budget cycles that address both debts.

“Basically, this new debt will just replace the old debt,” he said. “It’ll be level. Our goal is to minimize the burden on the tax rate.”

While Councilman Blake Dickinson, the board’s lone Republican, voted to support the application, he remains steadfast in his charge to consider other options. Specifically, he wants to research the costs associated with building a new school. Dickinson is worried that after this five-year plan ends, another round of borrowing will be presented.

“I don’t disagree that we have to spend money, but I’m just questioning how we’re spending it,” he said. “I see $6.7 million for five years, but what’s going to stop us from spending $6.7 million in five years and $6.7 million five years after that?”

Sarah Baines, a school committeewoman, said she doesn’t expect that. According to her, this bond will be the lion’s share of the major repairs because the district is addressing equipment that will be guaranteed for 25 more years.

“It should be routine maintenance after that,” she said. “That’s what the surveyors are telling us.”

Also, Anderson said, because the Jacobs report did not recommend replacement buildings, it’s unlikely the state would reimburse a project of that magnitude.

The remaining $850,000 not included in the $5.87 million bond will be financed by capital expenditures through the school committee’s annual budgets. Over five years, those totals range from $114,000 in fiscal year 2018-19 to $239,000 in fiscal year 2022-23.

The working group included, from the schools, Anderson, Superintendent Ken Duva, both principals, business manager Jane Littlefield and B.J. Whitehouse, chairman of the school committee. On the town side were Nota, Councilman Mike White, Town Engineer Mike Gray and Finance Director Tina Collins.

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