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The push to build a new Andover High School had its biggest setback to date as the finance committee voted to not recommend special town meeting approve spending $1.3 million to complete a detailed design of the $451.5 million building.

The vote was 6-2 with Ken Russo abstaining and Chair Paula Colby-Clements and Aaron Buzay voting for the motion to recommend approval. At the same time, the committee unanimously recommended the Nov. 20 special town meeting approve $500,000 for a study to determine what fixes could be made to extend the life of the existing building until Andover is in a better financial position to build a new school.

The finance committee is charged with preparing a report on the warrant that is sent to voters. The select board will make its recommendation on Monday, and the school committee will also make a recommendation later this month. The ultimate decision, however, will be left to voters who attend the Nov. 20 special town meeting.

Read an AI-generated transcript of Wednesday’s finance committee meeting.

“The voter has a question: Are you willing to spend two to three thousand dollars a year to fund the construction of a new high school?” said Russo, who abstained. “If you are, vote yes for this article and let’s get it done…if you’re not million to spend two to three thousand dollars a year, vote to …and tell us now. Don’t stretch it out another year.”

The $1.3 million schematic design article was originally proposed for the annual town meeting in May, but ultimately was pulled from the warrant when the town disclosed the project would push Andover over a state-mandated debt cap. The state legislature changed rules to exempt new school debt from the cap this summer.

The interim plan — which supporters of the new high school say is a nonstarter and won’t help Andover avoid a downgrade — is aimed at making improvements to the school until the Town pays down existing debt and will have a better chance of getting state money from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to offset the cost.

“I don’t like $450 million. I don’t think anybody in this room is going to love a $450 million number,” Buzay said. “But I think we have to figure out the final schematic design to get to the final, final number and say, ‘We’ve done all we said that we’re going to do, thousands of residents that have participated in this process, a final number that can be debated, deliberated on, talked about and finally voted on’.”

The Town’s bond rating will be downgraded if Andover moves ahead with the current proposal, which would raise the interest rate the Town pays in the future when borrowing in the municipal bond market. But if special town meeting follows the finance committee’s recommendation, it will likely force Andover to go back to the drawing board when conditions improve to move forward with a new school project.

“It is very difficult to envision a long delay and just picking up as if we haven’t missed a beat. The cost of services could change, different things can change,” AHS Building Committee Chair Mark Johnson said. It’ll make it difficult to wait six, seven, eight months and then try to put it back together.”

One Abstention

After the vote, Colby-Clements asked why Russo had not taken a position on the motion.

“It’s a tremendous debt. I can’t vote in favor of it, but [the building committee has] done so much — pardon my French — fricking work that deserves to be put before the voters. To me, the bottom line question is not us on our recommendations.”

“But our job is only to make a recommendation to the voters,” Colby-Clements said.

“I cannot in good conscious recommend no,” he said. “I also can’t in good conscious recommend yes. because of all the list of people who would be impacted or the money”

In separate business, the finance committee voted to recommend special town meeting not approve two citizen petition articles submitted by Mike Meyers, one that would have put a cap on increases in property taxes for seniors and one that would keep Town of Andover retiree health care contributions level with those of current Town employees.

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