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Editorial: Mascoma’s School Vote

“This is the biggest thing the towns will ever do for themselves,” remarked an Enfield resident earlier this year about the latest building improvement plan for Mascoma Valley Regional High School. That may well be true. Voters in Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Dorchester and Orange, which make up the Mascoma School District, must decide Tuesday whether to approve borrowing $21.5 million for a comprehensive renovation of the 51-year-old school building located off Route 4 in Canaan. This is the fourth proposal put forward by the School Board in the past six years, and each successive plan has been scaled back in accordance with residents’ concerns about cost, tax implications and other factors. Now, with the high school at risk of losing its accreditation, we recommend that voters do the big thing, the right thing for Mascoma towns, by passing this warrant article. The district’s students deserve a safe, modernized facility that instills pride and inspires seriousness of purpose.

The current renovation proposal is a substantial undertaking with a significant tax impact. Still, it represents a less hefty financial burden than the 2008 plan to build a new $39.5 million high school, which voters soundly rejected. They subsequently turned down plans put forward in 2012 and 2013 as well. Last year’s outcome, however, was tantalizingly close: just 25 votes short of the necessary 60 percent.

But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, so the board has further refined the scope of the project while advocates redoubled efforts to win approval. The current plan calls for expanding the footprint of the school from 60,000 square feet to about 95,000, in order to accommodate new science classrooms and a bigger wood shop, for example. New construction includes a larger gymnasium, expanded cafeteria, a new library and an auditorium with 500 seats. Crucially, outdated plumbing and electrical systems would be replaced so they meet safety codes. Deficiencies in the school’s mechanical systems and shortcomings in and out of the classrooms threaten both state approval and the school’s regional certification. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges is awaiting the outcome of the vote next week before deciding whether to renew the school’s accreditation, which can affect everything from a school’s ability to recruit teachers to residential property values to college admissions.

Like most school renovation and construction plans of this magnitude, Mascoma’s has attracted plenty of vocal opposition. Some residents object that it still tries to accomplish too much, at too high a price, especially at a time of declining enrollment. The estimated tax impact varies from town to town; district residents owning homes valued at $200,000, for example, would pay between $206 and $348 annually after the first three years, depending on where they live, with Orange residents taking the biggest hit. Under a 25-year financing arrangement, residents could be obligated to pay more after 20 years if interest rates go up.

We don’t underestimate the sacrifices the project would require. The tax increases are significant, especially for people on fixed incomes. As is often the case with school spending, there’s a generational divide in the district pitting older residents against younger families who are more favorably inclined to invest in educational facilities for their children. Former Dorchester Selectman John Franz said, “If the money we’re talking about were to be put into anything, you need to keep good teachers and to attract talented ones once the older ones retire. The money should go to them first. I’m a believer that bricks and mortar do not necessarily create a good education.”

But bricks and mortar, along with technologically up-to-date classrooms, a good library and other amenities, undoubtedly enhance the educational experience and, incidentally, help to attract talented teachers and staff, to say nothing of families seeking good schools. At the moment, Mascoma’s physical plant is substandard, as many parents, teachers and other proponents of this project have repeatedly testified at school meetings.

Of course, if New Hampshire were more generous with school building aid — the Legislature has put suspended aid for new projects — districts such as Mascoma would get some help to defray construction costs. For poorer districts with small tax bases, school construction is a daunting prospect, as Mascoma voters’ repeated rejections suggest. There’s still a possibility that some state aid would be available, though no one in the district is banking on it. That means the towns have to do this big thing for themselves — and for the generations of children to come.