Though it was not unanimous, Town Meeting did vote to approve the project. The vote in favor was overwhelming enough to not require a hand-count and the article was deemed passed by a voice vote.
The article was supported by both the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen.
School Committee member Mary Ann Stewart said the building of the 24 modular classrooms will be done over two years. She said there will be 12 modular classrooms for general education and 12 for special education, including for a program with students on the Autism spectrum.
"The space is needed to meet enrollment and special education needs," Stewart said.
Superintendent Dr. Paul Ash elaborated on the school capacity situation. He said that the school currently has 1,842 students and based on projections on students coming up through the lower schools the enrollment in 2016 is expected to be 2,174 students.
Ash said that 12 classrooms have also been repurposed for other needs, including a computer lab and for special education classes, further exacerbating the capacity situation. He said the modular classrooms will help alleviate the overcrowding for at least 10 years. He also said the school department will likely re-examine the high school's needs in 2018 and will look at possibly working towards further renovations or a new school.
"We are overcrowded and will be further overcrowded," he said.
Ash also argued that though the $7.7 million price tag is significant, creating the new modular classrooms will help the district save money in other areas. He said at this point the school is expecting to pay $2.9 million for 45 special needs students in the years 2018-2019 with the students staying in-district. If space limitations forces the district to send those special needs students out of district the cost will be around $5 million for that same time period.
Ash also told Town Meeting that the modular classrooms will meet energy code requirements, have the appropriate educational technology and feature natural skylights.
Town Manager Carl F. Valente spoke more about how the town will finance the project. He said to avoid crowding out the operating budget he suggests the town move funds from the stabilization fund each year to bring down the impact of the debt service.
He said that in the first year the town will move $928,500 from the stabilization fund, $1,078,000 from stabilization in year two and $805,496 in year three.
"We will then have sufficient funds to offset debt service for
this $7.7M project," Valente said.
During the discussion there was a proposed amendment from a Town Meeting member requiring the school department to more aggressively track population trends to produce more accurate future enrollment numbers. Some members supported the amendment, which town counsel said would not be a legal mandate, but it was defeated.