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Tewksbury to break ground on high school after tax hike passes

Posted March 12, 2010 09:38 AM

Tewksbury expects to break ground in August on the construction of a new high school after the project earned resounding approval from voters on Saturday.

By a margin of 6,186 to 1,191 votes, residents approved a debt exclusion - a tax hike over the limits of Proposition 2 1/2 - needed to fund the town’s $37.9 million share of the project. The turnout represented 40.8 percent of eligible voters.

The vote came after a March 1 Special Town Meeting appropriated $80.99 million for the project, representing the full cost minus $1.4 million previously approved for a study. In a record for the town, 2,098 residents attended the Town Meeting, only 10 of whom voted no.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has committed to paying $44.2 million of the project’s cost.

The debt exclusion will add $250 in fiscal 2011 - which begins July 1 - to the tax bill of an average single-family home valued at $328,000. The amount will decline gradually to $130 by 2035, the final year of the debt payments, according to finance director Donna Walsh.

“I’m very pleased. This is such a nice vote of confidence in and support for our school system,’’ said Superintendent Christine L. McGrath. “The high school of any school system is really the flagship, and to have our residents come out with such force and support the construction of a new high school facility is so gratifying.’’

The 218,000-square-foot school will be built on Pleasant Street, next to the existing high school. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012.

The School Building Authority has agreed to pay 60.06 percent of the $73.6 million in costs it deemed reimbursable.

Five of those percentage points were added when the authority chose Tewskbury as one of the first participants in a program aimed to save time and costs by using completed projects to model the design of new schools. Tewksbury’s design is modeled after the new Hudson High School.

Tewksbury also earned two percentage points for incorporating “green’’ features in its design, and a point for its past maintenance of the existing high school.

“I’m very pleased that the residents of Tewksbury support this project,’’ State Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who chairs the School Building Authority’s board of directors, said in a statement following Saturday’s vote. “The Model School Program has already saved Massachusetts taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and we are confident that Tewksbury will save time and money while providing a top-notch educational facility for its students.’’

The existing high school was built in 1959 and an addition built in 1981. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2005 put the school’s accreditation on warning status because of the building’s deficiencies, among them too little space and mechanical systems and windows in need of replacement.

The new 1,100-student school will include larger and more technologically advanced classrooms, and a library media center with up-to-date technology. The gym and auditorium also will be much larger, and there will be rooms able to accommodate large group instruction, which the current school lacks.

McGrath believes the extent of state reimbursement for the project, and the fact that the district was chosen to participate in the model school program, were key reasons residents were willing to embrace the project, even in a difficult economic time.

She said they also appreciated that this is a good time to undertake building projects because construction bids are coming in low, and that “a new high school facility is directly related to the property value of your homes.’’

Jamey Cutelis, chairman of the High School Building Committee, said that when voters “can really see their taxes going to a good purpose, they will gladly open their wallets, even during tough economic times. That’s what they did Saturday.

“It was very exciting to see the community come together in such a resounding way,’’ he said. “Across the spectrum, everyone supported the new high school.’’ 

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