While members of the Andover High School building committee were all supporters of building a new, $451.5 million facility, Chair Mark Johnson was consistent through the committee’s main goal throughout the 16-month process that ended at last week’s special town meeting:
Present what the committee determined was the best possible plan to build a new school and let voters decide.
On Nov. 20, voters decided, shooting down a proposal to fund a $1.3 million, detailed design of the school that the committee said would give an accurate cost estimate — one that would likely reduce the preliminary estimate through value engineering.
Instead, special town meeting opted to fund a $500,000 study that would look for upgrades that could be made to the existing school and keep the Town under the borrowing threshold that would have triggered a bond downgrade for the Town.
That decision was premature, in Johnson’s view.
“Unfortunately, though the Warrant Article was to provide funding to be able to bring a final project at an accurate cost to a future town meeting, the focus of much of the discussion was of a future project that has neither been completed nor one that has a final accurate cost,” Johnson said.
Had the new project received final approval and moved forward next year, the school could have been completed as early as 2033. Now, the earliest a new school could open is 2039, meaning the first cohort of students to attend the school are currently two years old and younger. If a new school is completed by 2039, most of the initial group of first-year students will not be born until 2025.
Even opponents of the new school proposal acknowledged the existing school is inadequate. But opponents also believed the project put forward by the building committee was too extravagant.
“We desperately need a new high school,” Andover High School teacher Mary Robb said at last week’s meeting. “Having said that, we do not need the Taj Mahal.”
The study will look for ways to extend the life of the existing building until Andover has a better chance of getting state money to offset the cost and until the Town has retired some of its existing debt, allowing it to borrow for a new school without jeopardizing its fiscal position.
The Andover Permanent Town Building Advisory Committee will oversee the study and will have its initial discussion on the study when it meets Thursday.
“It is my personal hope that the project under [the study] will be able to address the highest priorities of the building, as it looks like that facility will be our public high school into at least the 2030s,” Johnson said.