EASTHAM — The Nauset High School renovation gained the unanimous support of Eastham’s finance committee and select board when they voted on Feb. 17 and Feb. 22, respectively, to recommend approving the $131.8-million building project.
The renovation has won a $36.6-million Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) grant that would reduce the amount to be paid by district taxpayers to about $95 million. The grant is dependent on the project winning approval in a March 30 special election.
“I still think it’s a pretty conservative price tag given the volume of what they need to do at that school,” said Jamie Demetri, chair of the select board. “A price tag doesn’t necessarily dictate a decision. This is about something bigger than just a price tag. This is about a community.”
Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe noted in a memo to the board that one goal of the town’s strategic plan was to keep the community diverse and vibrant. “We need to retain and encourage more families with children to live and stay in Eastham,” she wrote. “Good schools are an essential component and the reason why families move here.
“This is a no-brainer, really, because of that $36.6 million,” Beebe told the select board, “plus the lowest interest rates that we’ve ever seen. We really need to take advantage of this moment in time to vote for this project to save money. I know it sounds paradoxical, but really, this is the best deal we’re going to get.”
Beebe’s memo noted that, because of a delay in approving the municipal water system, the town “lost the opportunity for zero-percent interest from the state revolving loan program and is now paying 2.4 percent. This is an additional 28 million dollars in extra taxes that the residents must pay for the same system. We can’t afford another mistake due to delay of a necessary project,” she wrote.
“I would challenge someone to find a municipal project that was delayed and ended up costing less, because there just aren’t examples in my 25-year history,” Beebe said at the select board’s meeting.
The Nauset Regional School District warrant for the March 30 election states that the approximate debt allocable to each town in the district would be: Eastham, $18,871,224; Wellfleet, $12,290,135; Orleans, $18,157,605; and Brewster, $45,830,225.
The Eastham Finance Committee issued a statement on Monday urging citizens of all four towns to vote yes on the project. The committee cited the MSBA funding, arguing that “no resubmitted school project has been approved for funding”; the high school’s “dire need of upgrading”; and the likelihood that a major repair of the school would require that the structure be brought up to code, at an estimated cost of $98 million — without the benefit of state aid.
Opponents of the renovation project have advocated phasing out the school choice program, which, as of Oct. 1, 2020, accounted for 198 of the 877 students enrolled at the high school, and building a smaller school to serve only the district’s students. Truro and Provincetown, which pay tuition of approximately $18,900 per student under a five-year agreement with the district, were sending 83 students to Nauset High as of Oct. 1.
The finance committee addressed the idea of building a smaller school in its statement. It warned that rejecting the project next month would cause a delay of at least three years and would require a new feasibility study. “Moreover,” the committee wrote, “during the delay, construction costs rise to match or exceed the towns’ $95.4 million portion of the renovation, and our children remain longer in a less secure, old building that meets neither 21st century educational requirements nor building codes.”
Select board member Art Autorino defended the school choice program.
“I think we’re at a crossroads,” he said. “We can decide if we want to continue the excellence we have in our school program, which is really driven by the diversity of the students in school choice and by the actual educational programs that we offer, versus downsize that and end up with a school that’s probably not as educationally diverse, not as people diverse, and doesn’t offer the kind of programs that we want, that at the same time will probably cost more money.
“We have a fantastic educational program in a school that’s falling apart,” Autorino added.
Fred Magee, chair of the Wellfleet Finance Committee, told the Independent this week that his committee had thoroughly vetted the project last year before voting to recommend its approval. Given that the regional school committee would be presenting its operating budget at an upcoming meeting, Magee said he would poll finance committee members to see if they wanted to revisit the subject.
“At this point, I don’t know what the basis would be for revisiting it,” said Magee.
Wellfleet Select Board Chair Michael DeVasto said his board would be voting on whether to recommend approval of the project. He planned to put the question on the March 9 agenda.
DeVasto said he was “very much an advocate” of the project. “Having $36 million from the state really puts us in a good position,” he said.