Vote NO on school building study...here's why


We hope our readers all had a nice Thanksgiving holiday.

Today we are going to explain why it is critical that voters attend their local Special Town Meeting (held simultaneously in Acton and Boxborough) next Monday, Dec. 4th and vote against the motion to do a Feasibility Study for a new school building (Article 1). The vote is not just about the Feasibility Study, it is about the communities’ support of the School Committee.

We agree that there are serious problems with the Douglas, Conant, and Gates school buildings, especially Douglas. The various options were being evaluated last Spring under the direction of then-Superintendent Glenn Brand when he was wrongly forced to resign by the actions of four School Committee (SC) ringleaders, as is now well known. The original expectation was that a Special Town Meeting would be asked to approve funds for a Design Study; this has now changed to a Feasibility Study, expected to take 18 months. We are told that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) requires this Town Meeting approval of the Feasibility Study as proof that the communities support the SC’s plan.

Therefore, approval would allow the SC to proceed not just with the Feasibility Study but with whatever plan they decide to do, citing “community approval.” Do we have the kind of faith in our School Committee to give them this “blank check”? Can we trust them to tell us the truth? Not as long as Amy Krishnamurthy and Mary Brolin, two of the ringleaders responsible for the Glenn Brand fiasco are still members of the SC -- Krishnamurthy as Chair, Brolin as head of the building subcommittee. No, so long as these two are on the School Committee, it cannot be trusted and it does not deserve our support.

Dealing with the Douglas/Conant/Gates buildings problems is a serious issue but the most important decision the School Committee will be making this school year is choosing our next Superintendent. ABRSD is one of the top school systems in Massachusetts, and it needs a top-level Superintendent. Unfortunately the pool of prospective candidates is tainted by the now well-known mistreatment of Glenn Brand. As long as those responsible are still members of the SC, attempting to do “business as usual,” good Superintendent candidates will be quite wary of applying for, or accepting a position offered by, the AB Regional School District.

Putting oneself through the rigors of a search, being named a finalist, only to be not really considered because many of the School Committee members have already made up their minds, is a very high barrier. Even higher, who would accept the job and want to work for these individuals knowing how they mistreated the last guy?

This means that good candidates will either not apply or will withdraw when they figure this out, or they will decline an offer of employment. The only way this perception could be countered is if those responsible are no longer involved. Period.

We have called on Brolin and Krishnamurthy to resign several times, but they do not show any willingness to do so or even awareness of the problem caused by their presence on the SC. Their continued membership on the School Committee is most likely going to greatly diminish the possibility that the search for a new Superintendent will attract good candidates. This would make the internal candidate a shoe-in, which is apparently what they want. That the other members have not pressured these two to resign means the entire School Committee bears responsibility for asking for community support without cleaning out the rot within first.

The school building issue is very important but it will not benefit from an approval of the Feasibility Study. The leadership of our Schools has to change, and until that happens the quality of our schools will continue to deteriorate, affecting not only the students and their parents but the entire communities of Acton and Boxborough. These Special Town Meetings are an opportunity for the voters to show their disapproval of the lack of corrective action by all the SC members by voting NO on Article 1.

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Comments

NEW BUILDING?

Are we putting the cart before the horse? I have not read why our existing school buildings can't be refurbished. The school buildings I utilized were from over a hundred years old to 70 years old. And the same buildings are still being used as school buildings. Do we really need to build new or can we refurbish?

Very strong points

Charlie and Allen, As you know, we have had some strong disagreements when we worked together on the recent and ongoing school district Brand fiasco. But this recent article of yours once again reminds me of the huge important points on which we do agree. Although I am planning on holding my nose and voting for the feasibility study funding on Monday, you make a powerful argument. So powerful that I will be sharing it with others, including the big "closed" facebook group page with now 1600 members. As I hold my nose and vote for the warrant article, I am hopeful your message will be heard at both town meetings. Brolin and Krishnamurthy need to resign from the school committee. They should have resigned long ago. And Maria Neyland should also resign from her position on the Boxborough Board of Selectmen. Totally agree. Keep up your good work here. You have my continuing respect for that. Cheers to you.
Steve Ballard

In response to a No Vote

Hi Charlie and Allen, The term “Feasibility Study” is required by the MSBA. From their website: Districts are to complete certain preliminary requirements that include … execution of the MSBA’s standard Feasibility Study Agreement, which establishes a process for the District to be reimbursed for eligible expenses. http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/building/modules_overview

This next Phase with the MSBA will encompass MSBA Modules 2-5, including schematic design. So when you say “The original expectation was that a Special Town Meeting would be asked to approve funds for a Design Study; this has now changed to a Feasibility Study, expected to take 18 months”, you are referring to the MSBA's required process and language. The MSBA is meticulous in it's oversight of their projects. This includes exactly what is included at each Phase of the project, and how it is to be described by the School District.

I call your attention the details of Module 3, specifically section 3.1.6, Preliminary Evaluation of Alternatives. http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/sites/default/files/edit-contentfiles/Building_With_Us/Feasibility_Study/Mod3_Feasibility_Study_Guidelines.pdf

The MSBA requires that, as part of the Feasibility Phase, “the District, working with its Designer, shall perform a preliminary evaluation of alternatives. To ensure that the Feasibility Study determines the most cost effective and educationally appropriate solution that can be supported by the community and the MSBA Board of Directors, it is imperative that the preliminary evaluation of alternatives is sufficiently comprehensive in scope to initially consider all possible solutions. “

These alternatives must include, at least, the evaluation of repairs, renovations, additions, and repairs to existing facilities. So when you say “approval would allow the SC to proceed not just with the Feasibility Study but with whatever plan they decide to do, citing “community approval” “, quite the opposite is true. Approval would require the robust analysis of all available alternatives. And, oh yes, the State will pay for 45.3% of the engineering, planning and design that goes into this analysis.

We have an Interim Superintendent in place with extensive experience building successful projects in partnership with the MSBA. He has demonstrated a strong guiding hand on the School Building Committee since his appointment in August. His insight into the MSBA process had proven invaluable during the planning process. I welcome you to attend a School Building Committee meeting to witness this in action.

Why would we vote down an MSBA partnership that insists on expertise, accountability, and transparency - while we have a superintendent on board with the experience required to guide this process - and that guarantees State reimbursement to the tune of approx. $50 Million? Would you prefer that the required improvements be made with no 3rd party oversight? On our own dime? Given your argument, I would think you would be in favor of the strict MSBA process. Other than a Protest Vote against the School Committee, I fail to see how voting down the Feasibility Study serves the fiscal or educational interests of our community.

Katie Raymond

Missing the point

Hi Katie, You state that the Feasibility Study is being done because it is required to get state aid. But the original purpose of this Special Town Meeting was to approve design funds, not do a feasibility study. The point is that the entire project has therefore been delayed because of the need or desire for this additional step, whatever its reason. Maybe it makes sense to change the process, but that doesn't change the fact that the completed project must be at least 18 months delayed (because in 18 months, if approved, we would then be proceeding with design work.)

You conclude by stating "other than a protest vote against the School Committee..." Well, other than that, we could perhaps support the warrant article. That's a big "other than."

This is the only chance voters will have to express their displeasure with the current School Committee leadership, which wants to proceed as if everything is fine. Things are not fine.

I also have serious issues with the ongoing search process for a new Superintendent, which I will write about next. But let's get the two selfish and stubborn members to resign for costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and putting our school system and towns into turmoil. Then we can perhaps look at hiring a new leader and building a new school.

The alternative is to go along with everything being fine and allowing the actions of these two members and by extension the entire Committee to go without consequences. That is unacceptable in my view.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

Due Diligence

Allen, you can argue the semantics of it, but the fact remains that a building cannot be designed until a thorough due diligence is performed. A robust site analysis and examination of all available alternatives is required before designing any building. This work must be done. Would you prefer to pay for it 100%, or allow the state to pay 45.3% of it? Would you prefer this vital work be delayed, or can we start this process in January?

And, as I mentioned previously, schematic design is included in THIS phase and will be complete at the end of the 18 months. It is module 4 and it follows the feasibility study. Again, this is clearly stated in MSBA guidelines. The only way to delay building design is to vote no on Monday night.
Katie Raymond

Good governance requires we vote no

Hi Katie,
I'm not even getting into the issues of the school building while the people directly responsible for our Superintendent fiasco remain on the School Committee, and remain in leadership positions to boot. It is simply a terrible idea to overlook their wrongdoing and, as one reader posted, "hold our nose" and vote to approve the school building feasibility project nonetheless.

There is certainly a train of thought that allows wrongdoers to get away with their behavior for the "greater good." Looking at the big picture, some might conclude that getting a new school building or allowing an insider to become Superintendent after a sham search is acceptable because "the end justifies the means."

This is the exact same thinking that lets a "Harvey Weinstein" keep sexually harassing women because he makes good movies, or lets a "Bill Clinton" keep harassing women because he has good policies, or lets a "Bill O'Reily" pay tens of millions of dollars in hush money because he has high ratings.

Having a four-month delay in an eighteen-month project to conduct a "feasibility study" is well worth it if it means that the people directly responsible for intentionally misleading and directly lying to the public are forced out of office. If it means our position for potential state aid (of which roughly only 30% of the projects eventually get funded, by the way) gets bumped and we have to resubmit our application, then we do that. This is definitely NOT a "vote yes or we lose state aid" position we are in.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

The Facts

If the vote fails in either town, there is no provision for a second vote. We lose our MSBA invitation and go back to step one. We would not be guaranteed acceptance back into the program. As a reminder, during the last MSBA round, 87 school districts applied and 17 were accepted. If the vote fails, we can submit a new Statement of Interest this April. We would hear back April of 2019, and then (should we be offered an invitation) we would vote on the Feasibility Funding in December of 2019. It would be a two year setback. This process is made clear by the MSBA. It would not be a 4 moth delay, as you state. I'm intimately familiar with MSBA funding history. Your statement that "roughly only 30% of the projects eventually get funded" is news to me. Could you share your source? Your comments likening our School Committee situation to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations are insulting. They speak volumes about your mental state.
Katie Raymond

Lol-my mental state

Wow, for someone to be “insulted” by my analogy but not insulted by the bald-faced lies told to the public as part of our elected officials performance of their duties is rich. What does the School Committee need to do to earn your ire?

I just looked it up, and you’ve neglected to inform readers that you are a member of the School Building Committee, Katie. That offends me. No wonder you blindly defend them and the process.

When our elected officials violate norms of conduct and then lie and mislead to cover it up, they deserve to be gone. End of story.

As far as my 30% success ratio for school building projects getting state aid, that was the answer our consultants gave to my question. There were about 100 witnesses and it was during a “working group” discussion of the pros and cons of even applying for state aid. Ask Glenn Brand, he was there. Whoops!

It’s not a given that we should ask for state building assistance because of many factors, most notably state control and interference. The overall building project could be larger or more costly than necessary with the state’s involvement. It will certainly be much slower, as you’ve already pointed out. Many recent projects in other towns have foregone it. But if the current leadership stays on the School Committee, then having that oversight would certainly be necessary.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

Facts. Again.

You are misrepresenting Dore & Whittier’s statement. Yes, “there is a 30% success ratio for school building projects getting state aid”. But great news! We were accepted into the State’s MSBA process. Now that we have been accepted, as long as the towns vote to approve the process moving forward, funding is guaranteed. Please familiarize yourself with MSBA Policies. There is a wealth of information located on their web site. The new Concord Carlisle High School was built in partnership with the MSBA, as was the new Maynard High School. As was the Stowe Center School (elementary). As was the renovation to Russel Street School in Littleton. Lincoln Sudbury has applied for – and been denied – three years in a row for MSBA funds. Which school districts have chosen to forego the MSBA process?

I am a member of the School Building Committee. I’m also a licensed Civil Engineer and LEED Accredited Professional. I don’t “blindly defend” anything. I am, however, well informed. I have been entrenched in the MSBA process since the Building Committee formed in June. Remind me, how many School Building Meetings have you attended? You are entitled to your opinions about the School Committee. I will not debate you on that. I will, however, correct every false statement you make about the MSBA process. You can count on the Monday night, as well.
Katie Raymond

Funding is guaranteed? Surely you are mistaken

It’s nice to hear about your professional credentials. You fooled me. I thought you were a physician given your bedside manner ;).

For someone who claims to know so much, you keep asking me questions which should be easy to find answers to. I’m not an expert in this area like you but my recollection is that several of the wealthier communities didn’t bother with state aid. But obviously, nobody wants to turn away “free money.” But your premise that if we don’t proceed now we will be set back two years is obviously false since we applied for the state aid like a year ago. Our worst case scenario is that we reapply and thus would be one year behind.

But let’s get to the whopper, which is your statement that “funding is guaranteed” if we approve Monday’s motion. You surely don’t mean that the entire project, $200 million, or whatever it ends up costing, is going to be subsidized by the state “guaranteed?”

There is zero chance that the state has committed to spending $50-100 million to the AB School District based on Monday’s positive Town Meeting votes. ZERO.

As is obvious to us non-experts, this project could be taken off the state list for a million reasons as the project gets further defined. There are no “guarantees.”

Perhaps you should start correcting “every false statement” with your own.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

The Feasibility Study is a waste of time and money

The Schools' proposal and all the arguments for it neglect one major problem : both the Gates and the alternate Conant building sites are unsuitable for the construction of the Twin School, or anything else. The Gates area is wetlands, the land around the Conant School is unstable. This is well known, it does not require spending $1.3 million and 18 months to find out.

Even if the Study found some way to place the Twin School next to the existing Gates building, perhaps by assuming different wetlands boundaries than those shown on the Town maps, would we want to build there ? It goes against all the environmental concerns, would create problems requiring expensive solutions, and end up with the wrong building at the wrong location.

The comment by Katie Raymond unintentionally illustrates the problem. The process required by the MSBA calls for a Feasibility Study, so that is what the School Committee wants to do whether or not the proposed sites make any sense, it is all about "the process". Once begun, stopping "the process" gets harder, the original purpose gets forgotten, the more money we spend the more irreversible the project becomes.

The best thing that Town Meeting can do for the children who are at the ABRSD now and will be in the future is to vote NO on Article 1 tomorrow, December 4th, 2017.

Charlie Kadlec

CharlieAF

More facts.

Dore and Whitter laid out one possible building scenario during their preliminary analysis. I’ve seen this illustration a number of places, but I found this one first. Slide 20: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hrSNX7dDJdVgbdkvnk_ItTgL-z8sI6vG/view The dark green swath shown across the top of the Gates site is the FEMA flood plain overlay. This can be easily found on the Town’s GIS site. The sort of mint-green shading is the required 100’ setback from the floodplain. The building’s footprint is outside of this setback, as required. Do you think Dore and Whittier would have ignored this essential site data? The Feasibility Phase will include an extensive site analysis including wetlands delineation, groundwater studies, and percolation tests, just to name a few. If Gates proves unsuitable, Conant will be studied. If Conant proves unsuitable, other sites will be studied. This will continue until a suitable site is found. All of this is encompassed in the $1.3 M estimated cost. It is also clearly spelled out in the MBSA’ Module 3. I have extensive Site/Civil private sector experience, so if I can answer any other questions for you guys, just let me know.
Katie Raymond

The School's presentation is inconsistent with MBSA's.

The MBSA's definition of the Feasibility Study includes the evaluation of many alternatives but the School Committee's presentation only shows a new Twin School at the Gates location, with a brief mention of the Conant site as a possible second choice. The School Committee's presentation also fails to mention that by accepting MSBA funds we lose control of the project, with MSBA requiring approval by their Board for every step, effectively getting veto power. This omission is another example of why voters should not rely on any SC information and refuse to support any proposal from this School Committee. Charlie Kadlec

CharlieAF

"If Gates proves unsuitable,

"If Gates proves unsuitable, Conant will be studied. If Conant proves unsuitable, other sites will be studied. This will continue until a suitable site is found. All of this is encompassed in the $1.3 M estimated cost." So the (fixed) cost estimate includes an infinite number of site evaluations until one is successfully located? That goes against everything I have learned about proposal-writing and budget-creation. Also, $1.3 million is just an estimate. How will that estimate climb if/when the two named sites are found to be infeasible? Is there an add-on for each additional site that must be studied?

Site Contingency

Viola, we built the evaluation of numerous sites into the $1.3M ask. Hopefully, we find the appropriate site early, and those contingency funds will not need to be spent.
Katie Raymond

Infinite studies

From the FAQ on the district website: Q: Is there enough money in the Feasibility Study to address sites other that Gates and Conant? A: Yes, if Gates proves to be unsuitable, we will examine a second location. Money to cover this contingency has been included in the $1.3M. Strange that the stated question is not addressed by the stated answer! But it does seem clear that it cannot "continue until a suitable site is found". If neither Gates nor Conant are deemed feasible, we are out $1.3 million with no backup plan. A feasible site selection is not guaranteed, and voters should be aware of this.

thank you

You're right, Viola. I wrote that FAQ answer and I can see now that I didn't express myself clearly. The $1.3M ask includes numerous site studies. Each site evaluation will range in cost. Some will have wetlands delineation, others not. Some we might be able to rule out with a $200 Perc test. The cost to evaluate potential sites varies greatly, that's why I use the word "numerous". We could certainly perform at least 5 comprehensive site studies within the $1.3M. Thank you for your comments, I'll correct the FAQ Page now.
Katie Raymond