By John Toole
---- — WINDHAM – The $31 million middle school plan before voters in nine days is the biggest, boldest project on a Town Meeting ballot in Southern New Hampshire.
The expense exceeds the police station in Hampstead, the kindergarten addition and Town Hall renovation in Pelham, and the three-school renovation plan in Salem.
The boldness is in the timing.
It comes while the community is still paying off a $50 million high school that opened three years ago and just graduated its first class.
The plan also follows by just one year overwhelming voter rejection of design fees for a new middle school.
This troubles some, but not others.
“Instead of stepping back and listening to taxpayers as public servants, they decided to reissue the same plan,” said Ken Eyring of the Windham Taxpayers Coalition.
Selectman’s candidate Alan Carpenter, embracing the project at the recent Woman’s Club candidate night, said it is not unexpected, given a 20-year population boom in town.
“It makes sense we are going to have to build new schools,” Carpenter told voters. “It’s unfortunate that the need for a middle school is coming on the heels of the new high school.”
The project calls for building a new two-story middle school near the high school on London Bridge Road. Seventh- and eighth-graders would attend. It would open in 2015.
Funds would be included for athletic fields both schools could use.
The financing plan aims to limit the biggest annual tax impact to the “high water mark” experienced with the high school. That was in the 2012 fiscal year and amounted to about $700 on the bill for a home valued at $300,000.
As the high school debt is retired, most years taxpayers would pay below that figure. But they would pay for a good long time – through the 2040 fiscal year.
Critics say that doesn’t tell the full tale, because the community will have new staffing and operating expenses over time adding to the tax bill. Initial operating expenses are estimated at close to $1 million.
Three-fifths voter approval is needed for bonding.
Opponents, proponents organize
The controversial plan has led to a level of community activism rivaling that of the great high school debate.
“There is a lot of community organizing happening, particularly among families with children who are, or will be, directly impacted by the rampant school overcrowding,” Donna Bramante InDelicato said.
The project spawned two new community groups.
The taxpayer coalition is opposing the project. Windham Initiative for a New School, or WINS, is campaigning for passage.
InDelicato said there are signs around town, website or social media presences for the groups, neighborhood socials and get-out-the-vote calls.
“We’re very fortunate we live in a community that has a passion for education and is willing to invest in education,” School Board member Stephanie Wimmer said.
Selectmen’s Chairman Bruce Breton, recuperating after a hospital stay, said he’s heard from hundreds of people in recent weeks and talk usually comes around to the school.
“They are reading all of the information put out by both sides and they are coming to a decision of their own,” Breton said.
Officials cite growing enrollment
Crowding is a big part of the problem with Windham Middle School off south Lowell Road.
School officials say the 644 students leave the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade school nearly 270 students over capacity. More students are coming. The district is expected to add more than 300 students by 2030.
Building the new school, and moving the seventh- and eighth-graders there, also can help reduce crowding in lower grades – a trickle-up effect. The district would gain flexibility to relocate other students to the existing school.
Though the selectmen’s candidates, Carpenter and Al Letizio Jr., agree on building the new school, the project is the prime debating point between incumbent Bruce Anderson and challenger Dennis Senibaldi in the race for School Board.
Senibaldi prefers a $10 million addition to the existing middle school, but Anderson maintains that doesn’t solve all the facility problems and gradual expansion ultimately will cost as much.
The taxpayer coalition isn’t ruling out future construction of some kind, but warns moving ahead now while there is a moratorium on state building aid could cost taxpayers.
The coalition also maintains the project’s tax burden will be worse than advertised by school officials.
The decision isn’t just about dollars and cents or bricks and mortar.
School officials are making the case that the plan is sound educationally, promising both an improved learning environment from less crowding but also student access to new labs and technology.
The community debate is provoking the usual message board static from rock throwers on both sides, but is otherwise playing out civilly.
The taxpayer group is publicly sparring with school officials over some of the numbers related to future enrollments and class sizes to justify the project.
Eyring contends school officials are disregarding sources they traditionally have relied on because that information doesn’t align with their desire for a new school.
Wimmer said officials are just being realistic, looking to other sources to better assess the community’s future.
“I don’t think we’re being dishonest,” she said.
Wimmer and Eyring may disagree about the middle school project, but are united that voters need to be informed.
“Go to our website, read all our articles, make your own decision,” Eyring said.
Wimmer pointed to the information posted on the school district’s website and the opportunity for people to attend events the WINS advocacy group is hosting.
“They should get themselves educated, get informed and go to the school district website,” she said.
Afterwards, voters need to act.
“I strongly encourage people to vote,” Wimmer said.
“You’ve got to cast an informed vote,” Eyring said.
Three-fifths voter approval is a high hurdle. Last year, in the aftermath of defeat at the ballot box, Superintendent Henry LaBranche counseled the dejected School Board that sometimes projects like this require multiple tries.
Eyring said proponents have a big push on for approval and concedes he’s unsure what will happen next week. “I don’t know,” he said.
He worries the town is heading down the same path as the high school project. “All these people out there that want a school, they’re not listening to the facts,” Eyring said.
Breton thinks it all will come down to the homefront.
“I have a feeling,” Breton said, “People will make the decision at their kitchen table.”
For more information on the middle school proposal: Windham School District: windhamsd.org Windham Taxpayers Coaliton: windhamtaxpayers.org Windham Initiative for a New School: windhamwins.org