Town Manager: Town Can Build 3 Elementary Schools Within Regular Budget

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Few towns can afford to pay for a major school project within its operating budget, let alone three, but Town Manager Michael Driscoll announced that the town would be able to finance the renovation or reconstruction of all three elementary schools without having to add to tax bills by passing a debt exclusion, Tuesday night. 

Driscoll discussed the financing of the Building for the Future school building program when he presented the Fiscal 2019 Preliminary Budget overview to the Town Council. His budget drew applause from the audience in the Town Council Chamber.

“I am pleased to inform you we are proposing a plan which you will see whereby financing of the potential Elementary Schools Project estimated at $80 million t0 $120 million is included in the Debt and Interest Forecast beginning in Fiscal Year 2020, all of this to be done within the confines of Proposition 2 ½ and all of this to be done without the need to request debt exclusion financing from the taxpayers of Watertown,” Driscoll said.

The announcement left grins on the faces of all the Town Councilors and the department heads at the meeting. Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli estimated that paying for the project with money borrowed through a debt exclusion would have added $500 annually to the property tax bills of the average Watertown residential property owner.

School Committee Chairman John Portz was also very pleased.

“I want to thank the Manager and the Council for the education funding, but I am really up here to thank the Manager,” Portz said. “Hopefully, we can deal with the elementary schools within the confines of the budget, which is very exciting. I know he said there would be a lot of conversations, but I will be happy to see a rabbit come out of the hat – it’s a big rabbit!”

Driscoll added that the town also plans to renovate or rebuild Watertown High School through the Massachusetts State Building Authority (MSBA) program, in which a large portion of the cost – almost half – would be reimbursed by the state.

The Town has room in its budget to pay for the school project because it has been aggressively paying down its unfunded pension costs and other post employment benefits (OPEB) for the last 9 years. From Fiscal 2009 to Fiscal 2018 the amount spent on pension costs has increased 131.24 percent, an average of 14.58 percent.

In Fiscal Year 2019 the budget calls for spending $18.49 million on pension costs. The next year, FY’20, the same amount will be split between three areas: $7.4 million for pension costs, $3.4 million on OPEB and $7.6 million on the school projects. The unfunded pension costs would be paid off by FY’21 and more would be used to pay down the OPEB debt, while $7.6 million would again be spent on school construction.

Budget Projections

The projected budget is $139.4 million, but the projected revenues would fall $2.2 million short of that, Driscoll said. Town officials will have to balance the budget before submitting it for approval from the Council in April.

“What will happen is either the revenue will go up, expenses will go down or a combination there of,” Driscoll said.

The budget includes 2.5 percent increases for municipal departments and, as with the last few years, the school budget will increase by 5 percent.

Driscoll assumed the state aid will be at the same level as the current budget year, FY’18. Because the town will not get state reimbursement for the 1995 debt exclusion, which will be paid off this year, the town will not get the $913,208 it received in FY’18.

Local receipts will be down more than a million dollars because the town got $1.2 million from the sale of the former East Branch Library this year. Also, Driscoll budgeted for $186,000 less from parking meters in Fiscal 2019 compared to the prior year.

The next step in the budget process is for the Town Council to make its budget priorities, which will be completed by November.

See the entire Fiscal 2019 Preliminary Budget Overview document by clicking here.

13 thoughts on “Town Manager: Town Can Build 3 Elementary Schools Within Regular Budget

  1. In August of 2015, I presented the idea of expanding the Cunniff School by adding a second story to the rear of the school to lower class sizes in the elementary schools. In November of 2016, after serving on the Building for the Future Steering Committee, I proposed an idea that the school construction projects could be funded without a tax override or debt exclusion.

    Here’s a link to the original piece:

    http://www.watertownmanews.com/2016/11/14/letter-watertown-schools-could-be-renovated-without-major-tax-increase/

    This is great news for the schools, the town and for taxpayers!! Great job – this will really help the schools and the town going forward!

  2. So happy and impressed by the Manager’s announcement about
    the schools!
    It is no wonder that Mike Driscoll is highly regarded in municipal circles as one of the top managers in the state.
    This town and its finances are in great shape and a lot of the credit goes to him.
    Those that were against paying down the unfunded pensions should take note!
    Good work Mr. Driscoll!

    • John Arasian the fact that we kicked the can down the road on school building space for all of of the years explains the reason of why Watertown can not do new construction. Town is now saying the plan is to renovate all k to 5 buildings at once on an accelerated time line. The space issue should have been dealt with a long time ago. To Len Holts point on renovating the school building the town will now be forced to renovate these because of the poor planning. These buildings needed attention years ago and now it looks like the town had the money but decided to pay off pensions. New school constructions could have happened if the town spent time to deal with each one individually and had places to put the kids at during the construction. We are celebrating the fact that Watertown is going to spend money that they always had to address a problem they have always had.

      • Ethan, you are indeed right on this issue. I saw this article and thought, this is terrific, both excellent news and great budgeting. And then I thought, well of course had we not “kicked the can down the road” for so many years, Watertown wouldn’t have to renovate all of its public school buildings at once. Ignoring the infrastructure needs was a decision that town/school governance and management, with tacit citizen approval, actively made for many years. Other towns–that have placed more value on public education than Watertown has–either renovated or built new buildings sequentially rather than pushing it off until the infrastructure no longer supports the educational mission. For goodness sake, learn this lesson once. Plan for the future and don’t fall behind again.

        One another note, given the pending election, Watertown folks should keep this in mind, and, remember back a year or so when the Cunniff was bursting at the seems and people were arguing for modular classrooms. The town was begging the School Committee for a building plan and as we see here, there was money. Eventually, the SC requested small-scale renovations to the Phillips, but, remember that the SC could NOT get its act together to send a request to the town, despite constant letters from Cunniff parents begging for help. Current SC members who have served for ~4-12 years or so hold responsibility for not pushing the infrastructure issue during the bulk of their service. The fact that WHS failed accreditation for the building on their watch and that 5 schools simultaneously need renovations should disqualify them from running for office. To be fair, these members are wonderful people, just not particularly good SC officials given the challenges and opportunities facing WPS.

        By the way Mike, if you are elected, and you have a good idea, such as the renovations to the Cunniff, do the ancillary work necessary to make it a reality. Rather than post-hoc searching for accolades, make it happen.

  3. For years I have written that we should re-build, NOT renovate our old school buildings. Congratulations to our Town Manager, Mike Driscoll, for findings the funds to re-build ALL Three elementary schools (and hopefully our high school with state funding). To suggest that we can do it without a properry tax over-ride is a GRANDSLAM! What a fabulous day it will be for Watertown residents, students and taxpayers when we build NEW SCHOOLS.
    Again, thanks for the great news Mr Driscoll, including your foresight, planning and leadership, to bring the fact to the Town Counsel that we can afford to do it. To all our elected officials on the School Committee and Town Counsel, the time has come to make NEW schools a reality for Watertown. Continually renovating old school buildings only results in the next scheduled renovation.

    • From what I understand from all the building meetings, the schools are not being rebuild but much of them totally renovated unlike in previous years plus additions to most. They should be very different from the inside if we use great architect firm. The newest has been so much more impressive and I’m looking forward to see what they can do Kudos to Mike Driscoll.

    • While Mike is “Post Hoc Searching for accolades”, what would Freud say you’re doing Candace? Displaced aggression perhaps? You up and left after what? Not getting your way and being surrounded by “wonderful people” AKA not a smart as you? For a lady who I believe never misses an opportunity to tell people how smart, educated and well-traveled she is, I would think you would be smart enough to turn the page and focus your precious time, energy and intellect on the good people of Sudbury, who are know doubt genuflecting at their good fortune of having such an erudite lady of your esteem move to their community. How can we miss you when you won’t go away??

      • Wow John–that’s pretty nasty. Sounds like you have an ax to grind that you can’t put down either. How about we forget about all the personal stuff and just move forward? The kids of Watertown won’t benefit from petty sniping on the part of adults.

    • Len, the next phase will determine whether new construction or renovations should occur, however as mentioned by others there are not many options for swing space given the number of students involved in the three buildings. Our steering committee developed a few scenarios with SMMA however would involve Phillips admin building, Middle School, and High School buildings as potential options. Also, the $120m dollar amount stems from the Dec 2016 facilities master plan recommendations cost estimates for renovation options. New construction of all three were estimated at $175M. There is likely to be a combination, as the largest opportunity for new construction is with Cunniff, based on several considerations and ambition to increase enrollment 100+ students over the next few years. Also, with the high school, MSBA classroom sq footage standards for new construction are less than existing spaces in a lot of cases. So we could end up with a new building with smaller classrooms, gymnasium and auditorium (those aren’t prioritized by the MSBA). The building task force just reviewed 10 RFS’s by OPMs for elementary projects and we are interviewing with four on Monday. Looking to finalize selection soon after. From there, same process with design services firm.
      Thanks,
      Michael Dattoli
      617-999-5334

  4. I cannot understand why some folks are concerned that we have been paying down our unfunded pension costs. You would think that paying off your debt would be considered a good thing.

  5. I’m very concerned that renovating our schools will most definitely expose our children to increased risks of cancer due to cancer causing chemicals and other toxins in building materials. Schools are enclosed and cannot off gas once construction is complete.

    “LEED BUILDING STANDARDS FAIL TO PROTECT HUMAN HEALTH.”
    http://e360.yale.edu/features/leed_building_standards_fail_to_protect_human_health
    “STEW OF CHEMICALS HIDING IN THE BUILDING MATERIALS OF MODERN HOMES, SCHOOLS, AND HOSPITALS.
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/12/building-materials-asthma_n_4427243.html
    “5 MOST TOXIC AND HAZARDOUS CONSTRUCTION CHEMICALS”
    https://www.whirlwindsteel.com/blog/5-most-toxic-and-hazardous-construction-chemicals
    “TOXIC CHEMICALS IN PRODUCTS AND BUILDING MATERIALS PURCHASED BY NEW YORK SCHOOLS”
    http://www.chej.org/epp_factsheets/chemicals_in_products.pdf

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