Andover Special Town Meeting approved spending $16.4 million to cover budget overruns at the West Elementary School and Shawsheen Preschool construction Thursday, ensuring the project will stay on schedule for an expected opening at the start of the 2024-25 school year.
“We very much did not want to come back to town meeting to ask for more funds,” West El building committee chair Joel Blumstein said at the outset of the meeting. The committee will meet Monday and approve a new contract with the construction manager to remove liability for the town if there are additional overages.
The final vote was 388-28, well above the two-thirds majority needed to approve the funding. Unlike other town meeting-approved borrowings, there will be no special election for final approval. The state is allowing Andover to forgo the special election after showing all the budget overruns were caused by inflation and supply chain issues.
The bulk of the $16.4 million in budget overruns will be paid with up to $14.5 million in new borrowing. While the final cost will be dictated by interest rates at the time of the borrowing, officials estimate it will add approximately $63 to the average Andover taxpayer’s annual bill for 30 years, based on an average assessed single-family value of $759,453. Those taxpayers are already paying an estimated $471 per year over 30 years for the original project cost and have a total annual local property tax bill of $11,088.
Already the most expensive public elementary school construction project in Massachusetts history with construction costs of $624 per square foot before Thursday’s vote, the project’s total price tag rose to $168 million from the original, $151.6 million. The additional money brings the construction cost to $715 per square foot. That makes West El is the fourth most expensive public school construction project currently in progress in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is paying $38.4 million of the project’s costs.
And, despite the contract guarantees with the project manager, the cost of the new, 190,000-square-foot West El may rise again: when it closed a $5.5 million budget deficit earlier this summer by eliminating some portions of the project, the West El building committee approved removing one of two elevators from the project but kept the elevator shaft in the design, allowing the elevator to be added at a later date. Installing the elevator would require another request for funding from town meeting.
In addition to the new borrowing, special town meeting approved transferring $463,731 left over from the $1.2 million town meeting approved in 2018 to fund the West Elementary School Feasibility Study. Last month, the town moved $1.4 million in free cash to cover the remainder of the budget overruns, which town and construction officials attributed to rising inflation and supply chain issues.
Leading up to special town meeting, the West El building committee considered but chose not to recommend several changes that would have brought the budget deficit down an additional $5.9 million, or $25.50 per year for the average Andover taxpayer. Those changes would have included:
- eliminating a greenhouse to save $98,7171
- forgoing gym partitions to save $571,070
- holding off on purchasing $223,070 in gym equipment
- eliminating $2.6 million in site improvements and landscaping
- skipping the installation of a $1.7 million turf field
- delaying the purchase of $466,695 in athletic field equipment
- forgoing window treatments to save $229,468
A proposed amendment that would have eliminated the turf field, the greenhouse, partitions, window treatment and athletic equipment failed. The amendment was proposed by Osgood Street resident Bethany Carey, an architect who works on school projects and called for Blumstein’s removal as chair of the building committee. Carey said the committee was responsible for keeping the project on budget and had made questionable decisions.
“Everybody wants to do a good job for the kids. It will be a nice school, but you don’t need a turf field. You don’t need a greenhouse. You don’t need some of the athletic equipment,” Carey’s husband, Adam Beck, said. “All you’re hearing tonight is from one side…it shouldn’t be on the taxpayers dime because this was mismanaged.”
The select board, school committee, finance committee and West Elementary School building committee all unanimously recommended approving the two articles on the special town meeting warrant. Had the two measures failed, the school’s opening would likely be delayed, and the project costs could continue to escalate.