File photo: Andover Public Schools

A divided select board approved moving forward with a new high school design that would cost an estimated $480.9 million and could potentially threaten the Town’s AAA bond rating.

Alex Vispoli and Christian Huntress cast the dissenting votes Monday, while Annie Gilbert, Laura Gregory and Chair Melissa Danisch voted to accept Andover High School Building Committee’s recommendation to move forward with the so-called “Campus 2 with auditorium” design. If voters approves construction, the project would cost the average Andover homeowner an estimated $66,410, or $2,215 per year, over 30 years based on preliminary estimates.

“We have a long history of delay in the Town of Andover, of waiting to see if there’s a better option,” Gregory said. “There’s never a perfect option. Yes, this is more than any of us would like to pay, but waiting is not going to improve the situation.”

The split was out of character for a board that typically votes in unison. The members who voted in favor stressed the financial hurdles were significant, but waiting would delay the project and increase the cost even further, while Huntress argued the Town could not afford the project.

“My concerns aren’t just related to the site layout or the programming, or the financing” Huntress said. “It’s how the whole package ties together.”

In addition to the lower bond rating that would make it more expensive for the Town to borrow money, the financial issues include:

  • Little chance the Massachusetts School Building Authority approving Andover’s application for a new school. MSBA has repeatedly rejected Andover’s applications, prompting the high school building committee to recommend moving forward with a project completely paid for by Andover taxpayers.
  • Pushing Andover over a state-mandated debt limit, although State Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) said earlier this month 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 makes sense for us to look at this option and refine this option while, on a parallel path, we look at how we’re going to finance it, which is a significant issue,” Gilbert said.

Last week, Huntress suggested the Town look at more options. On Monday, he said the Town should figure out how much it could afford to spend and then use that as a starting point for designing the school. Gilbert said that would “essentially restart the process,” while Gregory said the project’s cost would only increase in the future.

“Time is not on our side,” Gregory said.

“Time is not on our side, but that does not mean we should move forward with a project that we don’t have the ability to finance,” Huntress said.

Building Committee Chair Mark Johnson said the more detailed, schematic design would hopefully bring the cost down and give a more precise cost estimate. The design, however, has not been funded after an article for $1.3 million for the design was pulled from the warrant for May’s Annual Town Meeting. “

“If this were a baseball game, we’d be in the third inning,” Johnson said. “We don’t know what the number is going to be at the end, but we know we don’t like the number today.”

Under the current timeline, construction would begin in August 2025 and site work on the project would be completed in June 2030. Johnson said a delay would likely push the completion date back to the mid-2030s.

The project would need final approval from Annual Town Meeting and a special election, which would occur no earlier than January 2024 under the current timeline.

“Ultimately it will be the voters that will make this decision,” Vispoli said.

Discover more from Andover News

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading