By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — Two things were certain at last night’s Special Town Meeting: approving $5.7 million to finish the Bancroft Elementary School project seemed unavoidable to most voters, and nobody was happy about it.
Last night’s vote to approve the extra money for the project came after nearly a year of appeals and court litigation delayed the project. Officials said construction costs rose during the delay, requiring them to return for more money.
The money raised will now pay for parts of the project not yet awarded to bidding subcontractors. The first of these awards will be approved at a School Building Committee meeting Wednesday morning.
There were 469 residents checked into the meeting at 7:30 p.m., midway into the vote’s discussion. Among those in the high school’s Collins Center auditorium, only 15 or so stood against approving the extra spending when it was time to vote.
The rest supported the money, but not before voters spent more than 30 minutes expressing disappointment about the predicament, which would add to the project’s original $44.7 million price tag that was approved in January 2011.
“I doubt if any of us in here tonight want to vote for this article. We’re all terribly disappointed — it’s $6 million of our money,” York Street resident Don Robb said. “But I would point out that we really have no alternative. This is one of those situations where we can’t point a finger at ineptitude on the part of our town officials or anything of that sort.”
Cherrywood Circle resident Bob Pokress, though, did point the finger at town officials. Pokress said that yesterday’s request “is one in a continuing series of bailouts that town leadership has come to voters to ask for over the past 20 years.”
He listed several such projects fitting into that series, which included the construction of the Public Safety Center on North Main Street and the dual-facility High Plain Elementary and Wood Hill Middle schools.
“We’re now being asked again to bail out a project that, in this case, is way over budget,” Pokress said. “Why is it an impossibility for this town, like every household here in Andover that is faced with a financial issue where you have an unexpected cost or a major cost that comes in, that you have to adjust your expectations and cut out certain things in order to deal with that cost override?”
The additional money will add $24 to the average residential tax bill during the peak year of debt repayment. The debt is expected to be repaid over the next 20 years.
Whether voters were frustrated with the predicament or not, School Building Committee chairman Tom Deso said he appreciated the support.
“I was happy to see the amount of people that came out. I thought it was very well attended, considering it was a one-issue meeting,” he said. “I was surprised.”
The School Building Committee will meet tomorrow, Wednesday morning, to award the first of the remaining 18 contracts for the project. The first contract will pay for curtain wall and metal panels on the school, two portions of the building’s exterior, according to Deso.
The rest of the contracts will be awarded by the end of the month, prior to the expiration dates on the bids that have been submitted, he said.
After the meeting, officials will gather at the construction site for a topping-off ceremony, where the final steel support will be installed on the building’s frame. That is one of several milestones still ahead for the school, according to Principal Malcolm Forsman.
“Now, it’s just, ‘watch the shell be put on and go from there,’” Forsman said.
The building is expected to open for the 2014-15 academic school year.