Should we rethink our school building project?

Hello, fellow Actonians! Are you all surviving the Coronavirus lockdown? I for one can't wait for this crisis to abate.

Our economy has suffered a great blow and we have yet to see fully how it will negatively affect us all, from the personal level to the town, state, and federal government, as well as the private sector and the stock market. There are many unknowns out there that were not present just five or six months ago.

Last year, our Town approved a new "Triplet School" to replace Douglas and Gates elementary, and to expand our kindergarten and pre-K offerings. This project will be partly state-funded and will result in a brand new, very expensive elementary school building constructed in the Gates parking lot and field with the Gates School remaining open during construction. Eventually, the plan is to shut down Gates and Douglas to replace these two buildings that are well past their prime.

The project will result in a "debt exclusion" proposition 2 1/2 override, adding approx. $500 per year to the average single-family (ASF) property tax bill, on top of our regular yearly increases. I estimated the ASF bill will exceed $15,000 per year within just a few more years. This will make Acton less competitive and our taxes much more of a burden for the typical family living here.

Acton has also become less desirable just compared to our neighbor and school-partner, the town of Boxborough. We used to have essentially the same property tax rates, but since the full regionalization of the school system, Acton has been subsidizing Boxborough and it has resulted in a much lower tax rate and ASF property tax bill in Boxborough than in Acton.

As our ASF property tax bill begins to approach $15,000 per year, we are starting to see our rates getting closer and closer to far-wealthier towns like Concord and Lexington, which currently have ASF tax bills around $15,000 (see https://dlsgateway.dor.state.ma.us/reports/rdPage.aspx?rdReport=Community_Comparison_Report).

However, because their home values are so much higher than Acton's, the tax rate in Concord and Lexington is much lower. What this means is that home buyers can pick a better community if they get a smaller house or one that needs some work. If a home buyer spends, say, $600,000 on a house, they will have a lower tax bill in Concord, Lexington, or Boxborough than in Acton. So here is the question: in a period of great economic distress, is this a community that will continue to attract home buyers looking for a good school system like we have in the past?

Acton's residential property tax rate: 19.24
Boxborough: 16.72 (fairly flat last four years, unlike Acton's)
Concord, 14.23
Lexington, 14.05

These facts were all true prior to the Coronavirus, and now things are going to get much more complicated. Will the state follow through on its annual state aid for our town and school budgets? Will Acton's tax revenues decline as the economy contracts, at least temporarily? Will Actonians who have lost their jobs, been downsized, or had their business suffer or close be able to afford close to $15,000 per year just in property taxes? Could the lockdown's eventual end result in a home-selling spree and will future home buyers still be willing to pay our tax rates to access our school system which may also be negatively affected?

The economy may take several years to fully recover. Will young adults delay getting married, having children, or have fewer children? Such population trends are instrumental in estimating future school enrollments and our Triplet School project assumes our school population at least remains stable. What if it drops and we no longer need a Triplet School?

In my research against the project last year, I discovered what appeared to be some fudging of enrollment projections. I won't repeat the information again, but for those who want to review it, my summary article is here: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/feeling-sorry. In my opinion, the case for higher elementary school enrollments is quite dubious and perhaps even fraudulent. This alone should have triggered a review of the project by the Finance or School Committee.

Could Massachusetts, a high-tax state, see a general population decline as people leave the area to seek employment and a lower cost-of-living? Will the state try to raise tax revenues thereby accelerating this trend?

I was opposed to this school-building project because I felt that we could build a single-school, consolidate our elementary-school administrations into five schools instead of six, and use the savings to pay the new-school-building bond. In essence, this efficiency would allow us to build a single-school building for free. And with these new challenges becoming apparent, saving money might be a lot more important to the future of the town than anyone realized. The case to halt the current project and rethink it has become much stronger.



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