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Opinion: a reader's argument against the Newman override

Posted by Your Town  December 3, 2009 11:47 AM

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Town Leaders, backed by the “non-affiliated” Together For Needham, are putting the hard-sell on us Needham voters to approve a $27million override early next month.  They are using Fear to do so.  Their messages:

-  Approve the override now or Newman will fall apart this spring!

- Kids are getting sick!

- At $188/square foot, the money will fix Newman for 50 years and will be well spent!

- Approve the override or we’ll lose reimbursement money from the State FOREVER!

- The sidewalks are EXPLODING!

What’s wrong with what they’re saying?  Well, just about everything.  Let’s examine these Fear-Points step by step:                                                             

Newman will not fall apart this spring:
With proper and routine maintenance, Newman will last for as long as it takes to come up with a fair and reasonable plan. The temporary system installed in one wing of the school may not look pretty, and may not even be energy-efficient. However, with routine maintenance it is designed to last 10-15 years. The HV systems in other parts of the building are also old and in disrepair, but again with routine maintenance they will last until a fair and equitable solution can be developed. Which leads us to …

Kids and Teachers are NOT getting sick:
According to Superintendent Dan Gutekanst, no one is getting sick. In fact, from my investigations of what transpired two years ago, it’s my belief that only two teachers (and no students) got sick in the Newman building, and those teachers were located full-time in the Media Center. As it turns out, the Media Center carpet had been improperly cleaned for years, leading to the growth of possibly toxic mold in the wooden sub-floor. According to new director of facilities maintenance Chip Laffley, this carpet and sub-floor has been ripped out and replaced by a non-porous tile floor, and the problem is gone. The only child rumored to have gotten sick had a supposed allergic reaction upon opening a Media book at home. As a result of complaints from this child’s parents, this and other books were checked for environmental toxins by the State, and non were found.

Claimed efficient use of money are wrong!

A recent editorial in the Town paper claimed that the renovation would only cost us $188/square foot, and at this rate this is a fair and reasonable use of our money. This is WRONG – the actual cost is of the work is $228/square foot, all of which we may have to pay for ourselves regardless of any promises the MSBA may be making. What else could we buy for this $228/square foot? How about a brand new school! That’s right, according to Chris Alice, MSBA project manager for Newman, new schools in the State are coming in at between $200 and $300 a square foot! Proponents are pushing for us to spend $27,400,000 to rebuild a 50 year old building, when for the same money we could get a BRAND NEW SCHOOL built right next to the old one! Imagine that. Now, what are the advantages of a brand new school over an expensive renovation of an existing structure? Too numerous to list, but here’s a few:

a) Not having to spend $5,000,000 to buy 32 temporary classrooms

b) Not having children traumatized by being housed in a Trailer-farm environment for a full school year.

c) Not having to worry about students using a cafeteria and gymnasium inside a construction site for a full school year.

d) Not having to worry about whether or not the restrictions of a renovation will lead to poor air quality issues anyway – as it has in the Broadmeadow School, which was renovated in 2004. (Air quality tests done in 2007 in Broadmeadow show half of the classrooms have sub-standard rated air quality. Since then, I can find no follow-up tests, so as far as I can tell the air issues there still persist).

We won’t lose MSBA money forever

In fact, the Town has ten days to file a new request with the MSBA, indicating that it will go through the process of arriving at a new, more efficient solution expeditiously. And that’s it. However, it should be noted that the State is currently running a $600million deficit, and with $8billion in T debt and a maintenance backlog of another billion, MSBA reimbursements are hardly guaranteed.

The Sidewalks are NOT Exploding!

Town Leaders, in cooperation with Together For Needham, are using Fear as a motivating tool, and this is unfortunate on so many levels. TforN sent a blast e-mail to Needham school parents indicating that children were and are in danger, saying “an underground steam pipe that burst on Monday blowing a hole in the sidewalk. Scary? Yes. Reality? Unfortunately, yes.” If that were true, I would be the first parent standing in line demanding that Newman be shut down immediately. But it’s not. According to Superintendent Gutekanst, Newman is safe and no one is in any danger.

Why would we spend $27.4million to renovate a 50 year old school when we could have a brand new one for the same price? I have no idea, other than this is what has been pushed almost from the beginning. I also know that the inevitable revenue strain is finally hitting Town planners for next years’ fiscal budget. A recent edition of the Times leads with the story titled “Needham Schools predict rising budget deficit through 2015”. This of course will lead to another override this spring to try to preserve level spending. This is a very important issue, one that I will watch closely. For to me, Needham’s schools are so great because of small class sizes, excellent guidance councilors, physical education, music, art, media, etc – all of which will be vulnerable if operational overrides fail in the future.

In summary, it’s my belief that Town voters are being bullied and manipulated into voting for a large and wasteful override at a time that could hardly be worse. We should be figuring out how to do projects as efficiently as possible, planning for other projects that are also coming down the line – ie Hillside and Mitchell – and not asking voters to support a large, overfunded, poorly conceived, overdesigned project.

Rick Freedman is a parent of two children at Newman and a resident of Needham for about 10 years.

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