A member of the Andover Select Board pushed back Monday on the drive to build a new high school, which could add as much as $2,215 to the average homeowner’s tax bill over the next 30 years.
“It has a potential 20% increase on our taxes,” select board member Christian Huntress said. “While I may look at it and say that I’m on board with that, and I’m willing to invest in that, I’ve heard from others in the community who aren’t…The issue I’m struggling with is we need a new school, and we can’t afford any of the options presented to date.”
Huntresses’s comments came when the board reviewed financial considerations discussed at last week’s joint meeting with the Finance and Andover High School Building Committees. The building committee has recommended moving forward with a $480.9 million project to replace the school and Collins Center without funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which could threaten Andover’s AAA bond rating.
Huntress said while the building committee had “done everything we asked them to do,” the Town needed to explore more options. As an example, he suggested moving ninth graders to a middle school built for half the enrollment of a new high school.
“I’m not saying we need to pursue any of these, but we need to ask all these questions and make sure we considered all options,” he said. “Right now the project is too expensive, and we need to look at an option we can afford.”
But other board members signaled they wanted to find a way to pay for the building committee’s proposal, which was selected from a dozen different options. The school would include a new auditorium to replace the Collins Center. Of the three final options, the $480.9 million “Campus 2 With Auditorium” was the cheapest in preliminary estimates.
“It seems like the question is what’s the best way to not spend even more,” Select Board Chair Melissa Danisch said. “There’s a fundamental commitment to a new school and all that does for our town, and that should be the starting point.”
Town Manager Andrew Flanagan asked the select board to offer questions they want answered through financial modeling his staff could work on. The board said it wants to see models showing the cost if the Town delays the project until it can get MSBA funding. Select board members also said they wanted to see tax impacts, different scenarios that would trigger a bond rating downgrading and how it would affect the Town’s interest rates, as well as exploring costs for upgrading the existing school’s systems to increase its longevity.
In addition to the impact on its bond rating, the project also threatens to put Andover over a state-mandated debt limit, although State Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) said last week he expects the final state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to include an amendment that would exempt debt for school construction projects from the cap.
“It doesn’t solve our issue. It doesn’t solve the impact on our bond rating,” Huntress said.
A rapid increase in construction costs means MSBA will be able to fund fewer school projects going forward. Select board member Annie Gilbert suggested the funding squeeze may prompt the state to reevaluate how its fund school construction.
Flanagan said more communities will be in Andover’s position, noting Lexington was building a new $400 million high school and Waltham is spending $375 million for a new high school. “These numbers were inconceivable just a few years ago,” Flanagan said.
“I don’t see this $400 million plus number going down unless something wonderful happens with our economy,” Danisch said. “This is what is costs right now. It’s not going to go down.”
“I think we also need to consider if we don’t go forward, what is the impact to our community? Are businesses going to continue to want to come here? Are we going to continue to be in demand for people to move here?” Vice Chair Laura Gregory said. “If our high school coninues to be an embrassment, that’s a problem.”