EASTHAM — The Nauset Regional School Committee voted 6 to 1 on Jan. 7 to set March 30 as the date for a district-wide vote on the $131.8-million renovation of the regional high school, with Orleans committee member Josh Stewart casting the dissenting vote.
“I apologize if it’s going backwards some,” said Stewart, who had voted on Dec. 10 to approve the district-wide vote. “I’m curious if there’s any kind of official support from the four towns’ finance committees and boards of selectmen as far as changing to this one vote option.”
The renovation project has been in the works for years. But the committee’s decision to have a district-wide vote has sparked criticism, especially from those who say the school should be much smaller and cost much less to rebuild.
Responding to Stewart, Nauset Supt. Thomas Conrad said he had not met with town finance committees or select boards.
“It was a big decision a year ago, and I think it’s an even bigger decision this year given budget shortfalls in most of our towns,” Stewart said on Tuesday. “We need to make sure the selectmen and finance committees are on board as partners with us. Letting this thing sit and stew for a year has brought up some people that are concerned about it.”
Stewart said he still supported the project and understood the need to shift to a district-wide vote. “The single date makes sense,” he said. “Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that we’re going to be able to pull off four town meetings and four town votes in the time frame that the state requires, during a pandemic.”
The committee had planned to take the project to town meeting voters last year, but the postponement and uncertain scheduling of town meetings prompted it to defer the votes until 2021. Now, with a May 31, 2021 deadline on the project’s $35.6-million Mass. School Building Authority grant, and uncertainty about the dates of this year’s town meetings, the committee voted unanimously last month to hold a district-wide vote. Both the building project expenditure and the debt exclusion question would be voted on simultaneously in all four towns and decided by the cumulative vote.
“We couldn’t put this $36 million [state grant] at risk because we didn’t know if town meetings and in turn town elections were going to occur in an orderly fashion this year because of Covid,” said committee chair Chris Easley. “The greatest way to tick off the voters is to lose the $36 million.”
Reading from a prepared statement during the “citizens speak” segment at the beginning of the meeting, Brian Kavanaugh of Orleans urged the committee to rescind its decision.
“First, the changed process violates well-established Nauset past practices,” he said, citing a $6.5-million replacement of windows, doors, and roofs at the school that was approved by town meetings in 2011. “Second, the change in process represents a failure to honor its word with respect to how voter approval has been sought since the project’s conception, and it is also a basis upon which you received over a million dollars to perform design,” he said.
Kavanaugh is a retired commodities trader and former member of the Nauset Regional School Committee. He warned of potential pitfalls of a district-wide vote, naming the 2018 Dennis-Yarmouth district vote on a $117-million middle school project, which passed by a narrow margin, with Dennis voting 1361 to 876 in favor and Yarmouth 1502 to 1955 against.
“Their project resulted in great inter-town discord and landed them in court,” said Kavanaugh.
“There is a contradiction between how you were elected to this committee and how you are seeking approval of your project,” he said. “You were not elected by the four towns. You were elected by a single town, with responsibility to represent your town’s interest.”
At that point Kavanaugh was cut off by Easley because he had used up his allotted two minutes of “citizens speak.” A bid by another resident to yield his own two minutes to Kavanaugh was rejected by Easley.
“I don’t think that’s how citizens speak works,” he said. “We’re not in the middle of a meeting and you’re not yielding to somebody else that’s participating in the meeting.”
Stewart said that, while he understood the spirit of the two-minute limit, he would like to see citizens allowed time to voice their concerns, even if they take three minutes. “It doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of a school to be shutting down voices,” said Stewart.
“To be clear, Josh, it’s not my rule — it is the rule of this committee,” said Easley, adding that speakers could request time to appear before the committee and be put on a meeting agenda.
Kavanaugh said afterward that he planned to ask to be put on the committee’s agenda to give a presentation, along with Bill Dugan of Wellfleet.
In a recent letter to local newspapers, Dugan, a former Wellfleet town administrator and former treasurer of the Nauset school district, advocated the “phasing down” of the school choice program by not accepting new out-of-district pupils.
“Nauset voluntarily accepted 290 Choice Program pupils in FY 2020 into our Middle School and High School from outside of the Nauset District,” Dugan wrote. “These Choice students will not pay for their share of the cost of enlarging the high school. Their presence hugely inflates the building costs for Nauset taxpayers.”
According to the Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website, the Nauset district’s school choice enrollment was 290.9 in 2020, 314.7 in 2019, and 348.9 in 2018. While not comparable to the DESE numbers because of a different reporting date, the Nauset School District reported school choice enrollments as of Oct. 1, 2020 of 198 at the high school and 60 at the middle school, with 23 Provincetown and 60 Truro students paying tuition to attend.
Nauset receives $5,000 per school choice student and approximately $18,000 per student from Provincetown and Truro.
“The number of pupils drives all the costs,” Dugan told the Independent. “Both the operating budget and the capital budgets — which are construction budgets. Obviously, the larger the school population, the bigger building you need.”
The Nauset High renovation is designed for an enrollment of 905 students. According to the school district’s enrollment records for 2020, there were 877 students at the high school.
Dugan recommended building a smaller high school based on the number of students who live in the four-town district.
“I would welcome Truro and Provincetown joining Nauset,” said Dugan. “I think it’s the logical thing to happen. Now, I think they’re reluctant to join, because they have a better deal as nonmembers than they would as members. As members, they have to pay their share of building the new high school. As nonmembers, they don’t have to pay anything.”
Dugan agreed with Kavanaugh’s opposition to the district-wide vote, calling the change “undemocratic.”
“Each town should have the opportunity, as we have had in the past, to vote twice, so we have the opportunity to ask questions on the floor of the town meeting and also have the benefit of the secret ballot vote [for the debt exclusion],” said Dugan. He predicted a small turnout of voters in March, saying that many residents will be away at that time.