LETTER: Parents Group Explains Positions on Taxes, CPA’s Issues & School Construction

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Since Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) released our “Fund Schools First” position statement on the CPA tax, the conversation on both sides of the issue has ramped up. We want to take this opportunity to clarify our position and clear up some misinformation that is circulating. We have also released a video of similar content for those that may prefer that media.

Is it true that “Yes on 5 Doesn’t Harm Watertown Schools”?

Watertown Strong Schools believes that passing the CPA now will be harmful to the future school renovation effort while CPA proponents believe that Watertown voters will pass BOTH the CPA and the future debt exclusion override in the next two years. WSS disagrees; we are not willing to gamble that passing the CPA now will not jeopardize the coming debt exclusion vote. Therefore, we ask you to vote NO on Question 5 now, and continue the CPA conversation after funding has been secured for renovating our school buildings.

We believe that everyone in Watertown wants better school buildings for our students, and we hope that everyone would vote to strengthen and upgrade our schools when asked. However, Watertown is an economically diverse town. Not everyone in Watertown can afford two tax increases – no matter how small – in a short period of time. Many may have to prioritize their vote, especially given the tax increase on 2-family homeowners in the past year. For many of our neighbors it will simply come down to affordability, priorities and tax-fatigue.

Is Watertown Strong Schools anti-CPA and anti-tax?

No. WSS has no position on the merits of the CPA itself. We are against the timing. We agree that investment in preserving and enhancing our community in the areas of historic preservation, affordable housing, and parks and open spaces are worthwhile goals. Nevertheless, at this time, we do not see any of the needs or opportunities in these areas as rising to the same level of priority as the needed renovations of our schools.

We are not anti-tax. Our property taxes continue to fund our schools. We will be advocating for the debt exclusion override tax in a few years and will advocate for any other tax if it maintains or improves the learning of our students and their environment.

Why is renovating our school buildings so urgent right now?

The urgency has been growing. For the last 3 years, Watertown Public Schools has applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for matching funds to build a new high school per the 2014 recommendation from Oudens Ello Architecture, as a way to stave off overcrowding in our schools.

This year, however, our Elementary schools’ overcrowding became critical. In the last year (since 10/1/15), our K-5 enrollment has grown 3.5%. The Cunniff Elementary School has been hit the hardest, but each Elementary School has had to make adjustments:

 Last year, at the Cunniff, art/music rooms were turned into classrooms in the middle of the school year, while Art was delivered via a mobile cart. This year, a physical divider split a single room in two, for a 2nd grade and a 3rd grade class.

The Lowell had to move their computers out of their Computer Lab into their library to create a classroom for its growing enrollment.

A preschool class was moved out of the Hosmer in order to make space for an additional classroom. The preschool class moved into the Phillips building, alongside an additional preschool class that was needed to meet its state-mandated enrollment requirements.

Enrollment was centralized this summer to the Phillips building, in order to minimize overcrowding. If a new student’s neighborhood school was already full for their grade, that student was placed in the next closest school that had space. Thankfully, to date, very few students have had to be placed in schools that are not their neighborhood school.

Latest enrollment forecasts project continued enrollment increases over the next 10 years:

Gr. K-5: +112 students

Gr. 6-8: +64 students

Gr. 9-12: +74 students

Total: +250 students (~9%)

For our overcrowded schools, any increase can have a significant impact.

How has the school district addressed these projected enrollment increases?

The district hired SMMA, an architecture firm specializing in education, to conduct a Master Plan Study identifying options to solve our physical space needs over the next 10 years. A Master Plan Steering Committee – made up of a cross-section of Watertown residents, school administrators, teachers, Town Councilors, and Town planning employees – met all summer and held 3 public community forums.

This summer work resulted in several options with real drawings and associated building costs. The final Master Plan document will be released soon, and Watertown, as a community, will need to discuss the prioritized recommendations and decide how best to proceed. SMMA shared at the public community forum in August that the total cost estimate for all 5 schools ranges from over $160 million for the most minimal renovations to $400 million if the town decides on new construction. WSS expects the favored option to be renovations of all 5 schools that include some reconfigured spaces necessary for 21st Century learning, which has an associated price tag over $200 million.

Won’t it take 10 years to renovate the schools? Why are we talking about an override in 2 years if we don’t have a plan yet?

While it may take 10 years to renovate all the school buildings, the funding and initial plans for those projects will need to be completed in the next 2 years.

The first step in the process, the Master Plan, is nearly complete. The next steps will involve community conversations to select from the recommended options and finalizing a plan of action within 6-12 months.

Once a plan is agreed upon, feasibility studies for each school building will further refine the plans and their associated costs. When the final details and costs are identified, the Town will determine how best to pay for the renovations.

Similar to the last time our schools were updated (1998), WSS expects that some of the new renovations will be funded through the normal capital improvement plan (CIP), while some will be funded through a debt exclusion approved by Watertown residents. The current debt exclusion will come off the tax rolls in 2018. We anticipate the new debt exclusion vote to appear on the ballot in two years, and we expect it to cover the entire plan for all 5 schools rather than having a separate vote every few years for each phase (school) of the project.

It will not take 5 or 10 years to solidify the funding for the school building renovations – it will take two.

What about the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) – won’t they pay for most of our school renovations?

For the last three years (2014, 2015, and 2016), Watertown has applied to the MSBA for monies to help rebuild Watertown High School, which was the priority school identified in 2014 by Oudens Ello Architecture. We will learn in a few months if Watertown has been accepted into the program.

It can be a long process, with multiple applications before the MSBA accepts a town into its program. It took Belmont 10 years to be invited into the program. Watertown might not be able to wait that long, and instead could choose to self-fund the high school renovations. The MSBA will only fund the renovations for a single school, and would only fund about 48% of that single-school project. As of right now, MSBA applications have only been submitted for the high school, and it is our opinion that our Elementary Schools are in more urgent need of renovation.

Doesn’t Watertown have to pass the CPA now, if it is on the ballot?

No. Watertown already rejected the CPA once, back in 2005. If the CPA is rejected now, it can be put on the ballot again in the future, either through a gathering of signatures or by a majority vote of the Town Council.

Can’t CPA funds be used for schools directly?

While there are benefits to passing CPA, those funds cannot be used for school renovations, unless the school is designated as “historically significant” or is on the State Register of Historic Places. We don’t believe any of our schools currently hold either of those designations.

In short, WSS opposes the passage of Question 5 because the timing is wrong. Major school renovations are urgent, imminent, and will carry a hefty price tag, which will have to be passed onto all taxpayers and likely to renters as well. For our children, there is a lot at stake. Quality, currently relevant education cannot be delivered in cramped, antiquated classrooms.

Let’s be sensitive to the mounting financial stresses placed on Watertown taxpayers. Yes, some may be able and willing to pay for the CPA tax and a debt exclusion for all the school renovations, but this is a risk that parents and the community should not have to take. Are you willing to take this risk?

WSS stands by its position – Schools First and then the CPA!

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