A split Andover Select Board recommended Monday that special town meeting approve $1.3 million for a detailed design of a new, $451.5 million high school and a $500,000 study to look at potential upgrades to the existing building.
The 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 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.
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“The decision before the community is a huge one. We’ve said all along it needs to go to the community for a vote,” select board member Annie Gilbert said. “The best way to get the most complete amount of information, amount of data, amount of granularity around fiscal impacts will be to have the process move forward on both 7A and 7B.”
Chris Huntress and Alex Vispoli opposed recommending passage of article 7A, the schematic design, while Laura Gregory cast the dissenting vote on recommending Article 7B. Earlier on Monday, the school committee unanimously recommended special town meeting pass both articles.
Huntress, who previously said the Town simply can’t afford a new high school, raised concerns that moving forward with the schematic design would lock the Town into the current, preliminary design, which also calls for demolishing the Collins Center.
“If we continue to move forward as proposed, we lose the ability to consider alternative designs that could in the long run be better and more affordable for our community,” he said.
‘Interim plan’ gains support from both sides
The so-called interim planned was reported at a pair of quad-board meetings in September and October and is aimed at upgrading the existing school until the Town is better positioned to apply for state money to offset the upgrades and when the Town would be in a better financial position. Some backers of the new school proposal have opposed 7A, saying how the $500,000 would be spent.
“There would be no downside on waiting on 7B until annual town meeting, and then voters would know what the parameters are that we’re talking about with the $500,000 that we don’t have now.”
But 7B did gain the endorsement of the Andover High School Building Committee, with members saying the interim study, coupled with the schematic design, would give voters a clearer understanding before making the final decision on whether to build a new AHS. The building committee’s endorsement, however, is contingent on representatives from the school committee, building committee and Andover Public Schools administration were included in the process.
Andover would pay for both articles with free cash. With the recommendation process complete, the finance committee was the only board to recommend the Town not spend $1.3 million for a schematic design.
Other select board recommendations to special town meeting
The board voted to not recommend the other five articles on the Nov. 20 special town meeting, all of which had been submitted by citizen petition.
The board recommended special town meeting not approve article 1, which would put a nonbinding referendum question on the annual election ballot in March asking if Andover should adopt a new form of government to replace its open town meeting. Select board members note the question had already been considered in depth by the Town Governance Study Committee.
“I believe that this warrant article is an unwise measure and should not be approved,” Jon Stumpf, who chaired the study committee, said. “The committee determined that Andover’s open town meeting government serves Andover and also recommended several reforms. A ballot question is not the way to change the form of government.”
Local government activist Mike Myers submitted three of the articles, all of which the select board unanimously opposed. If passed on Nov. 20, article 2 would cap property tax increases for seniors, article 3 would keep healthcare contribution increases by Town retirees equal to those paid by current employees, and article 4 would clarrify rules for speakers and presenters at town meetings.
Article 5, if approved by special town meeting, would reduce the speed limit on several Andover roads to 25 MPH, and article 6 would create an advisory committee to review and recommend traffic safety data and improvements. The board unanimously recommended special town meeting not approve those two traffic safety articles were unanimously voted down on advice from town counsel, saying the Town did not have the authority to make speed limit changes because of state rules and the proposed committee would not be able to direct Andover departments.