EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 30, 2013

$100M in school projects bound for N.H. voters

By John Toole and Alex Lippa
Staff Writers

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More than $100 million in school construction projects are expected before New Hampshire voters at Town Meeting in March.

A proposed $74.7 million bond issue in Salem to renovate Salem High and its Career and Technical Education Center tops the list.

"We're hoping for a positive vote," School Board member Peter Morgan said.

School officials will air details during a Jan. 16 forum at 6 p.m. at the high school.

The high school's aging infrastructure and the fact interest rates are low are two good reasons why the project makes sense now, Morgan said.

But there's another reason.

"We have nearly $11 million set aside for it by the state to do the Career and Technical Education Center," he said.

"That is there waiting for us to pass the bond and it is only there this year and next year," Morgan said.

"The iron is hot. We need to strike now," he said.

A $22.6 million expansion and remodeling at Pelham High is coming before voters with the backing of both the School Board and Budget Committee.

The proposed two-story addition includes a 240-seat auditorium the community will be able to use.

Superintendent Amanda Lecaroz, appearing before the Budget Committee last month, said the School Board had reduced project costs below an initial $24 million estimate.

The goal of the project is to meet the school's facility needs for at least 10 to 15 years, she said.

"The facilities concerns at Pelham High School are well known and well documented and most people in town agree that those concerns need to be resolved," School Board chairman Brian Carton said.

The plan addresses facility issues raised by an accreditation report but also brings real value through the auditorium, parking and security improvements, he said.

"We certainly hope that voters will take a close look at the project and support it in March," Carton said.

In Hampstead, more than $6 million in school renovations will be brought to the voters.

Most of the improvements will be done at Hampstead Central School, where $5.52 million worth of work is being proposed. The district is proposing 15,500 square feet of new space and 10,500 square feet of renovated space.

The work would replace six portable classrooms, which were meant to be temporary but have been there since 1994. There are a pair of music rooms, therapy rooms and fourth-grade classrooms.

Students currently have to go outside the portables and into the main building, which officials consider to be a safety hazard.

The school's four kindergarten classrooms would also be overhauled to meet state standards.

At Hampstead Middle School, there would be $816,555 worth of renovations. The school plans to renovate the library, computer lab and the front entrance. The middle school and elementary school renovations will all appear in one warrant article.

The Windham School Board is expected to decide Jan. 7 whether to bring a middle school addition before voters.

School Board member Dennis Senibaldi said he supports the expansion, which he estimated could cost $16 million with site work, but is unsure the board will do so.

"It's at least 3-2 and possibly 4-1 not to do it," he said.

Voters in successive years have rejected engineering fees and construction of a new middle school.

Senibaldi acknowledged one factor shaping the board's decision is the desire for voters to approve the first new teacher contract in several years.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed teacher contract last year, when a new middle school also was on the ballot.

Londonderry school officials will once again ask voters to approve money to pay for renovation projects in the district.

Last March, voters said no to spending $4.5 million on major school upgrades and construction. This year, school officials intend to bring a $4 million warrant article forward.

Projects include roofing work at the middle school and gymnasium floor upgrades at North Elementary School.

Granite State Taxpayers chairman Jim Adams said communities, given economic conditions, will have to look at the projects and decide whether they are something that would be nice to have or absolutely necessary.

"Each community needs to look at it carefully. This is a real tough thing," he said.

Warrant articles typically require three-fifths voter approval for such projects.

An issue New Hampshire continues to wrestle with is whether to build amid declining enrollments, Adams said. "Since 2007, enrollment has gone down. But we continue to put more and more in construction," he said.

But there are some schools that are tired, aging facilities that need to be worked on or replaced. "A lot of times, it is the right thing to do," Adams said.

Gino Baroni, owner and managing principal with Salem-based Trident Project Advantage Group, said there are benefits for communities pursuing construction projects.

"The time to do it is now," said Baroni.

He predicts there will be a potential pop in construction costs in the 2015-2017 time frame, as the economy improves.

"This is an excellent time to be pursuing construction," Baroni said. "You're getting the best of what you are going to get for the forseeable future."

Besides saving on construction, towns also stand to gain from reduced borrowing costs, he said.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for communities to save on long-term bond rates. If you've got to do it, now is the time to do it. There is no better time than now," Baroni said.

— Reporter Julie Huss contributed to this story.