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MSBA's Craven answers questions at school forum

Date: 9/28/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM With only one week left before the crucial Special Town Meetings that will decide the future of the new high school project, the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee is working hard to ensure everyone knows the facts before they cast their votes.

At the district's School Committee meeting on Sept. 22, committee chair Peter Salerno and Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea discussed how the two towns would pay back their $34 million share of the $82 million project. In the past, regional school districts were only allowed 20 year bonds, but the school worked toward gaining a 25 year bond. However, a letter from Richard A. Manley Jr. of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP stated that there is supplemental authority to borrow for up to 30 years with the Qualified Bond Act.

To receive a bond with the benefit of the Qualified Bond Act, the school district must file an application with and obtain the approval of the Commonwealth's Municipal Finance Oversight Board.

"We do have the authority from our attorneys to apply for a 30 year bond," Salerno stated.

O'Shea said he thought this was a great option for taxpayers.

The superintendent went over the tax burden that would result from the project at a public forum last Wednesday at Minnechaug Regional High School, for which dozens of residents turned out, including selectmen from both towns and State Sen. Gale Candaras.

"The way this has to be handled is to make sure the taxpayers will be served," Candaras said. "The real question is whether the people can afford the tax burden. We have to decide for ourselves. We've created an opportunity. It's an open door."

Current bond rates are less than four percent, but to be conservative, O'Shea presented what the average yearly cost would be residents in each town, based on their home values, at 4.5 percent and at 5.25 percent.

In Hampden, a home valued at $200,000 would see a tax burden of $196 (at 4.5 percent) or $214 (at 5.25 percent) a year; a home valued at $300,000 would pay $294 or $321, respectively.

In Wilbraham, a $200,000 home would see additional taxes of $185 or $203; a $300,000 home, $278 or $304.

The burden would be split based on the school's student population, with Wilbraham taking 76 percent of the burden and Hampden taking 24 percent.

Katherine Craven, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the funding force behind the project, was on hand at the forum to answer questions. She explained that the MSBA "wrestled every bit of fat that was possible out of this project" to keep the cost as low as possible; that close to 1,000 hours have been spent developing the new Minnechaug project; and that new is the way to go because a renovation would lead to the remodeling of 50,000 square feet of space that isn't being used the equivalent of all of Green Meadows School.

One resident asked what the possibility was that the state would renege on its promise of funding this project, based on the fiscal situation the state is in.

"Absolutely, unequivocably zero," Craven answered to applause. "We are under contractual obligation to get this money to you."

Another resident asked if this would be another "Big Dig," without any controls on spending.

Craven explained that there are rules in place so there would be "no chicanery" and that 15-day audits would be undertaken to make sure everything was on the level.

Several residents asked about the green technology going into the new school. Frank Tedesco with the Mount Vernon Group Architects noted that day lighting would be very important in the new school, that photovoltaic panels would be included and that sustainable materials would be used.

Tedesco added that with the green building practices, the new Minnechaug should expect to see a 20 to 25 percent decrease in energy bills over what is currently being paid.

There was a question of sustainability costs and how the school would be kept up for the next 50 or more years, and Craven explained that one percent of the MSBA's reimbursement could be used for maintenance costs as long as the towns matched that grant - approximately $474,000.

Salerno added that the School Committee is already working on creating a policy regarding this issue and that a committee is being formed to ensure proper maintenance occurs.

The next public forum will take place Sept. 30 in the cafeteria of Thornton W. Burgess Middle School in Hampden, starting at 7 p.m.