News

Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District proposes controversial $5.5 million bond

Friday, February 21, 2014

By IRENE LABOMBARDE

Staff Writer

A public hearing on the $5.5 million bond warrant being proposed by the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District was attended by dozens of people, many of whom were under the mistaken impression that the bond was just for new athletic fields.

Construction of a new synthetic turf athletic field behind Hollis Brookline High School, at an estimated cost of $2.5 million, is included in the bond, but it is just one of four major components. The remaining $3 million is for renovations and building an addition to alleviate issues of workspace and overcrowding, improvements to parking and the roadway, and upgrades to the technology infrastructure.

“We intentionally put all these elements in one warrant article to allow people to consider them simultaneously and see the big picture,” said Tom Solon, chairman of the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board. “You can look at all the elements together without having to guess what will happen next if we did them sequentially.”

He then discussed each individual component, and pointed out that if voters did not support a particular item, they could amend the warrant from the floor during the Cooperative District annual meeting on March 3.

Addition proposed for HBHS

The first item in the bond calls for $2.2 million to build a three-story addition to the main building of the high school. The school’s rate of 98 percent classroom occupancy, cafeteria overcrowding and lack of teacher planning rooms have long been concerns. This overutilization is one of the main reasons HBHS is in danger of being put on probation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the organization that monitors accreditation standards in the region.

The changes are being proposed not just to meet accreditation standards but rather to best serve the needs of students and staff.

“Although we have a lot of rooms, they are not generic,” Solon said. “With 98 percent occupancy, there is an inability to match need with the type of space that exists. We need to reconfigure existing space, get additional space via new construction and recapture some classroom space.”

Recapturing
existing space

Another part of the bond calls for $178,000 to recapture existing building space by converting a library classroom into a learning technology center, removing stacks to create flexible student-use space and converting a robotics area into a science classroom. This section also includes $20,000 to conduct a study on traffic patterns and how to improve access. There currently is only one road in or out of the high school.

Technology upgrades

The fourth component calls for $390,000 in technology improvements, including upgrading the network, replacing the current phone system and upgrading network closets.

With interest rates more favorable than in recent years, and the district’s debt load about to drop as other bond payments are completed in the next two years, administration says the time is right to proceed.

Bond terms
and tax impact

The proposal is for a 20-year bond, with the principal deferred for two years. The first year’s payment of $143,000 represents interest only, with a tax impact of 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in Brookline, or $53 for a $350,000 home, and 8 cents per $1,000, or $28 in Hollis.

After reviewing the warrant, Solon asked those in attendance for constructive input regarding which portions they support and what they would change.

Public input

“I’d prefer separate warrants,” said Peter Baker of Hollis. “I see some stuff that is unpalatable and some stuff I really like, and I have to make a trade off. I’d like to see two separate warrants to vote yes or no on fields and on structures. I would vote against the whole article because the two or three things I like are surrounded by things I don’t like.”

Brookline resident Eric Pauer expressed concern about a 20-year bond for technology that wouldn’t last that long. He also pointed out that the tax impact is deceptive, because it will double or triple once payments on the principal begin.

“It’s not wise to borrow money for 20 years for things that won’t exist then,” he said. “People are hurting, and it’s not the right time.”

Several residents voiced concern about spending money when enrollments are predicted to decline, but Solon said that the deficiencies still need to be addressed even with lower enrollment. Some suggested separating the components of the bond, while others spoke about current conditions and said they support the proposal.

“We just need space,” said Mary Ann Chandley. “If a parent comes in and needs to talk to a teacher, they need a place to go. Having teachers on carts is not acceptable. I don’t think we can wait for state aid to come back and bail us out. If we break (this bond) into four, I will vote for all four. I’m aghast that we are at this point and scrambling to get this done. I have a mortgage for 30 years but I don’t plan on still being there in 30 years. A five-year turnover in software is just the way it is.”

Jennifer MacLeod, of Hollis, also voiced her support of the proposal, saying the technology update is long overdue, as is the new field.

“My two kids play three sports each,” MacLeod said, “and this is not an issue about keeping up with Bedford, Oyster River or Bow. This is about safety, and our fields are in terrible disrepair.”

“I didn’t know the fields issue was combined with the other issues,” said Kim Day. “I am in favor of the fields. I also have one kid who has a 10 a.m. lunch, one who eats in the hallway and one who takes VLACS (virtual learning) who wishes she had somewhere else to talk with her online teacher besides her bedroom. I support the article in its entirety. I support the complete child, both student and athlete.”

Potential loss
of accreditation

Interim Assistant Superintendent Cindy Matte reviewed the school’s status with NEASC and the potential for being put on probation. The school has been warned of issues that need to be addressed, and has been granted an extension until the annual meeting. Because NEASC is the only organization that grants accreditation, if HBHS is put on probation with NEASC, it will have to turn to the state for accreditation.

“Those standards are similar,” Matte said, “and if you don’t have NEASC accreditation, you wind up paying twice.”

Solon cautioned that the bond needs a two-third majority to pass, and if it fails, people have to be ready to accept the fact that the school will likely be put on probation. Board member James O’Shea said probation would be bad for students and for homeowners.

“We need to take care of this and maintain our investment,” he said. “When people look to move (to New Hampshire), we have to be at the top of the realtor’s list. We haven’t been good stewards, and we need to admit our mistakes and take care of it now.”

Vote March 3

The annual meeting of the cooperative board is at 7 p.m. March 3, at HBHS, where residents can vote on or amend the bond warrant.

Helpful links

Full text of the bond warrant and the projects it covers can be found at www.sau41.org/COOP/reports/2014/2014-01-23-Facility-Options-for-
Cooperative-District-
Facilities.pdf
.

The presentation on the bond issues and public comment from the Feb. 12 hearing can also be reviewed www.sau41.org/school-boards/live-stream/live-stream-archive/109-hollis-brookline-cooperative-
coop-school-board
.

The report of the Athletic Fields Study Committee can be found at www.sau41.org/COOP/reports/2014/2014-01-15-Athletic-Fields-Study-Presentation.pdf.

Additional reports and support materials can be found on the Cooperative School Board home page, www.sau41.org, under the tab General Reports.

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