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Claremont Votes Again On Stevens

Voting on the school district warrant is Tuesday, March 12, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wards I and II vote at the Claremont Middle School; Ward III at Disnard Elementary School.

Claremont — Supporters of the $12.6 million Stevens High School renovation bond article on the school district warrant say its passage is as critical to the city’s economic future as it is to its students’ educational future.

“There are a lot of reasons beyond education why this is important,” said Andy Lafreniere, a member of the communications committee that has been aggressively promoting the project in hopes of gaining the required 60 percent majority. “It is also about taxes, jobs and home values. Property values will take a hit if the high school is deemed deficient.

“In my opinion this is the most important project in the history of Claremont.”

Lafreniere and others who support the article say businesses take into account the school system when deciding where to locate and will be more inclined to move to Claremont if the high school is renovated and accredited. “It will show that Claremont really does care about education,” he said.

In his conversations with voters, Lafreniere said many have told him the city cannot wait any longer.

“What I hear a lot of is, ‘It is time.’ We’ve kicked the can as far down the road as it can go. We will end up getting hurt a lot worse (if we don’t do this). It is time to get it done.”

Taxes, he said, are not the first thing most seem to be concerned about.

“Are we getting what we need, that is the first question I get,” said Lafreniere, who added that a careful explanation of the renovation plans often brings a positive response.

“Many say, “Oh, really. OK, it is about time.’”

The proposal is a pared down version of the $23 million bond for renovation and expansion of Stevens that was defeated in 2010 by one vote. That project would have received state aid while this proposal does not have that component. Several times over the last two months, architectural firm Banwell Architects has made presentations outlining the building’s current conditions and the proposed improvements.

If the bond article passes, upgrades would include all new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, updated security, a new front entrance, expanded parking, a new bus loop and student drop off, a larger cafeteria, new science labs, updated locker rooms, new windows and doors and some new roofs. Banwell said when the renovations are complete, for the start of the 2014 school year, the school will be in compliance with all fire, safety and building codes, the Americans with Disabilities Act and state education standards.

It would also address the deficiencies cited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that placed Stevens on probationary accreditation status last summer.

Cynthia Howard, a former School Board member and head of the anti-tax group Claremont Citizens for Lower Taxes, opposes the bond. She disagrees with those who say the timing is right.

“The economy is playing a huge role,” Howard said, referring to what some are telling her. “People are having a hard time struggling with high gas prices and high food prices. The last thing they need is higher taxes.”

The first year bond payment would increase the tax rate 30 cents per $1,000. It would climb to $1.09 the second year and stay at about that level until the bond is paid off.

At Wednesday night’s School Board meeting, Howard challenged the notion that investing in the public sector through a tax increase must be done to attract industry.

“It will drive businesses away,” Howard told the board. “Lower taxes will bring in more businesses. We are investing in the public sector at the expense of the private sector. We need a different mind set.”

In a video playing on local cable access urging support for the bond, City Manager Guy Santagate and Mayor Jim Neilsen said the only way to achieve lower taxes is to expand the tax base and a better school with accreditation is key to that strategy.

“We can’t do that (lower taxes) if we don’t grow,” said Santagate.

Neilsen said if nothing is done with Stevens, it “guarantees that taxes will increase.”

Howard also questions the need for such extensive renovations. She said the district could use money in its facilities budget to bring Stevens up to code for fire and safety.

“If it was as bad as they say, the state would shut us down like they did Unity (elementary school in July 2010,)” Howard said.

The School Board, administration and Banwell have said there is minimum of $8 million in repairs needed to bring the school up to ADA and code compliance and replace the boilers, which are about 100 years old. Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said the state fire marshal would want to see a plan to address these deficiencies.

“It is not a nice thing to do but something we must do,” he said at meeting last week.

The group advocating for passage of the bond has a web site, votestevens.net.

A companion article asks voters to approve a $7 million lease/purchase agreement with Johnson Controls for energy upgrades in the schools, including wood pellet/propane boilers, new windows and insulation. Johnson guarantees that the savings in the district’s annual energy costs, now about $600,000 a year, will more than cover the annual lease payments, thus there is no projected tax rate impact for this article. School officials have said Johnson’s work at the high school would be in conjunction with the renovation of the school, assuming both articles pass.

The precise numbers in terms of the savings will not be available until after Johnson completes a comprehensive energy audit of each school. SAU 6 Business Manager Tim Ball said the $75,000 contract for the audit has not been finalized and won’t be signed until after the vote, if the article passes.

“It is a big step toward reducing the waste of taxpayer dollars with energy efficiency,” McGoodwin said Wednesday night.

Budget

The proposed $32.15 million school budget is up slightly from this year’s budget while the general fund portion is increasing $756,000, or 2.6 percent, to $29.3 million.

Increases in health insurance, state retirement contributions, special education, instructional technology and support, and staffing to address behavioral issues are behind most of the increase. The budget also includes $26,000 for a one-year administrators contract.

The amount to be raised by taxes is projected to climb 1.5 percent, or $198,000, to $12.9 million.

Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said his main goal since joining the district in 2011 is to improve classroom results.

“We have to be open and honest with the data, and the data shows a substantial number of students failing,” he said. “That is unacceptable. That is the elephant in the room; the number of students not doing well.

“This budget puts the focus on student achievement and instruction,” McGoodwin said.

Tax Rate Impact,
Other Articles

The budget would add 25 cents to the city’s school tax rate and in addition to the 30 cents for the bond, the other articles would add a combined 20 cents. Additionally, the state education tax rate, over which the district has no control, is projected to increase nearly 22 cents.

If all the items pass Tuesday at Claremont's school vote, the overall school tax rate is projected to increase $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation and add $153 in taxes on a home assessed at $150,000.

Other articles include: three contracts for paraprofessionals, maintenance and transportation employees and secretaries, lease of a two new buses and technology upgrades.

By petition there is an article that would prohibit an increase in the amount to be raised by taxes in the next budget. The tax cap article requires 60 percent approval.

All School District races are uncontested, including two, three-year School Board seats, with incumbent Richard Seaman and former board member John Napsey on the ballot.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Saturday, March 9 edition of the Valley News.

If all the items pass Tuesday at Claremont's school vote, the overall school tax rate is projected to increase $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation and add $153 in taxes on a home assessed at $150,000. A story in yesterday's Valley News about the upcoming vote gave an incorrect figure.