Editorial: Stevens High Renovation; Bond Proposal Deserves Support

In every respect save one, the timing is right for the residents of Claremont to approve a renovation of Stevens High School. That one factor — the unavailability of state aid — is a matter over which taxpayers have no control. If recent and not-so-recent experience is any guide, those who might be inclined to hold off on the project until the state does the right thing on behalf of poorer school districts by providing adequate construction aid could find themselves waiting a long time. And there’s no time to lose.

It is only three years since the Claremont School District came agonizingly close to approving an ambitious renovation plan for its venerable, much-loved but now quite inadequate high school building. But for one vote, the district would have attained the required 60 percent majority needed to approve a $23 million overhaul of Stevens.

The $12.6 million plan that will come before voters a week from Tuesday is scaled down, but still substantial. If it is approved, Stevens would receive, among other improvements, new electrical and mechanical systems, new science and business technology labs, a reconfiguration of its classrooms, renovation of its cafeteria, improved security, redesigned entries to bring the building into compliance with federal law concerning access for people with disabilities, and various site improvements that would address problems with parking, traffic circulation and safety. A separate measure would authorize the school district to enter into a lease agreement with a company that would replace the heating systems at five district schools and make various energy-efficiency upgrades that would produce enough savings to pay off the cost of those improvements.

If updating Stevens was necessary three years ago, which it was, it is only more urgent now. Since the razor-thin loss in 2010, Stevens High’s accreditation has been changed to probationary. The deficiencies identified by the accrediting committee all pertain to the building’s inadequacies. Little wonder: Some of the proposed work would merely allow Stevens to meet current fire and life-safety codes.

Few would dispute the notion that the most critical elements of a good education have little to do with a building and everything to do with the teachers, administrative leadership, curriculum and the engagement of families and community. At a certain point, though, a deficient building can impede the efforts of even the best of teachers attempting to execute the best-designed educational program. Stevens, with its tired systems, its antiquated classrooms, its outdated labs and its dysfunctional layout has reached that point. The building itself, fortunately, is sound, meaning that a landmark that has served previous generations of Claremonters can serve future ones with a major renovation.

Of course, voters must judge for themselves whether they can make the financial stretch that paying off a bond would entail. For most of the life of the 20-year bond, taxpayers would see an additional $1.09 per $1,000 of property valuation tacked onto their tax bills. That’s significant — $164 on a home assessed at $150,000 — but also moderate within the range of major capital undertakings. There’s another factor to consider. The School Board has identified $6 million of work that needs to be done regardless of whether the bond is approved, and the school district’s capital reserve fund is virtually empty. If this bond is rejected, taxpayers might end up having to cough up much of that money anyway, but in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion.

And if voters approve this proposal, they’ll receive more than an updated, better-ventilated, safer, more efficient, better lit and more attractive high school, although that’s a fairly enticing package by itself. They’ll also be securing the less tangible but very real benefits that accrue to a community that has demonstrated its commitment to its school system. School administrators and the School Board have recently undertaken a number of changes that reflect a commitment to upgrading the educational program. If voters were to further that effort by approving this renovation proposal, Claremont’s demonstrable interest in improving its schools would be noticed by families and businesses deciding where to locate. That, eventually, would help address the city’s long-standing challenge of expanding its tax base.

And although Claremonters certainly shouldn’t count on it, who knows — maybe something will happen in Concord that opens the door to state building aid and brings the state closer to meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education to all New Hampshire students.