Questions, answers on proposed $90 million elementary school

Oct 10, 2018

At the October 22 Town Meeting and again in the Nov. 6 general election, Wareham voters will be asked to approve spending $40 million to build and equip a new consolidated elementary school to replace the Decas and Minot Forest elementary schools.

Tentatively named the Decas School at Minot Forest, the new school would be built at the site of the current Minot Forest School. The 159,000-square-foot building would be designed to educate 1,020 students from kindergarten through Grade 4.

The new school would cost a total of $90 million. With the state committed to contributing $50 million, the $40 million represents the town’s share.

A “yes” vote would allow the town to borrow the $40 million and increase taxes over the next 20 years by the amount needed to repay the debt.

In advance of those two votes, town and school officials have provided voters with a mountain of information. And taxpayers have been asking a lot of questions. We hope the following questions and answers can help readers understand the issues surrounding what may be the most important decision the town will make for years to come.

Why does Wareham need a new elementary school?

The two current elementary schools were built in the 1960s. Both have been plagued by a range of structural issues in recent years. A 2016 study, commissioned by Town Meeting, concluded that both buildings had outlived their usefulness.

Improvements needed to rehabilitate both schools for use well into the 21st century would include extensive electrical, mechanical and plumbing upgrades to meet current building codes – in addition to expensive removal of asbestos hazards and structural changes needed to make the buildings handicap accessible.

Because of the building issues Minot Forest was closed at the end of the last school year. The town’s students in grades three and four now attend classes in a separate wing of the middle school. Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grade students continue to attend Decas Elementary.

Wouldn’t renovating both schools be less expensive than a new school?

The estimated cost to repair Minot now and Decas five years from now is $74 million. Because such repairs are not eligible for state funding, the town would have to pick up the entire price tag.

Are there other, non-financial benefits to building a new school?

Proponents say yes. The new school would be designed to accommodate the way students are taught in the 21st century rather than the 1960’s. (When Decas and Minot were built, the people who later came up with the idea for a thing called the Internet were likely still in elementary school themselves.)

In addition, space would be available for public meetings. Officials have said classrooms dedicated to art, computer labs and the gymnasium could be opened up to older residents.

Is $90 million, $40 million paid for by taxpayers, really the total cost?

The $90 million cost includes furnishings and technology for the school, moving services, architect fees, inspection fees, traffic studies and the removal of hazardous material from the site during demolition. The fields, playgrounds and parking lots at the school will also be resurfaced within the $90 million, which also includes an allowance for any unexpected increases in construction costs.

“It’s everything from soup to nuts,” said Chad Crittenden of PMA Consultants, the firm hired to help guide the design process.

How much is that going to cost me?

To fund the project, residents will be asked to approve a “debt exclusion” to the tax-limiting Proposition 2-1/2. Unlike an “operational override” such as voters failed to approve several years ago, a debt exclusion raises property taxes only for as long as is needed to repay a specific debt and only for as long as is needed to repay the debt. In this case, an increase in taxes would be used to repay $40 million over 20 years.

For those who pay property taxes, that would mean an 82-cent increase in annual taxes for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. Someone with a home value of $258,000 -- the median figure for a single-family home in Wareham -- would see taxes increase $211.56 per year.

What about renters?

Landlords in the private rental market are free to raise rents at any time for any reason, bound only by the language in lease agreements.

Since they would see higher property taxes themselves, many would likely pass on some or all of the cost to renters.

Rents would not rise for those living in Wareham Housing Authority apartments.

For those living in private, subsidized affordable housing projects such as Brandy Hill Apartments and Depot Crossing, the answer is unclear. In order to raise rents those property owners would need to get approval from state lawmakers.

What about those who live in mobile homes?

Those who live in mobile homes pay only excise taxes, which would not be affected by the school spending.

The owners of the town’s mobile home parks would see their tax bills increase. It would be up to each individual mobile home park owner whether the cost would be passed on to mobile home residents.

What happens if voters do not pass a debt exclusion?

Wareham would lose its state funding commitment – which has been slowly secured over several years -- and be left with two broad options: 1. Begin the process from scratch of securing state funding, a process that state officials estimate would take about seven years. 2. Find other ways to deal with making repairs to two aging elementary schools, funded 100 percent with local tax dollars.