A second look at Nauset High's Window Replacement Project
Now let's see if taxpayers will take the time to get informed cost vs benefit
Two weeks have passed since our editorial on the proposed $6.5 million renovation of Nauset Regional High School. This week we had an opportunity to sit down with Nauset Superintendent Richard Hoffmann for what turned out to be a very cordial meeting. We commend Dr. Hoffmann for approaching us as well as for his amiable, open conversation of some ninety minutes. His delivery of prepared statements at public meetings does not do justice to the superintendent's congeniality, intelligence and wit.
Dr. Hoffmann has provided two documents that explain in painstaking detail the process of applying for the funds, the preparations made after the initial letter of interest was submitted and the regional school board meetings at which the project was discussed and which answer many "frequently asked questions" about the project.
What every taxpayer in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans and Wellfleet should do
We appreciate the thoroughness of these documents and have reproduced them as PDF's for this editorial. Cape Cod Today encourages every taxpayer in Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans and Brewster to study these documents prior to your special town meeting.
23% of the students at Nauset Regional High School are school choice students.
One of the surprises we experienced when reviewing Dr. Hoffmann's presentation at the public hearing in Eastham were his remarks regarding school choice students. The superintendent confirmed yesterday that some 23% of the students at the 1,000-student Nauset Regional High School are school choice students. These students come to Nauset High from all over the Cape. Dr. Hoffmann has promised to provide a breakdown of his school choice students by town and we will share that as soon as we receive it.
Some at the Eastham public hearing insisted that the region should somehow "assess" the school choice students' home-town districts for Nauset High's window and roof repair. Those same speakers seemed to think that the school choice money received by the district was some sort of slush fund that Hoffmann could tap at will. Our meeting with the superintendent and our own research dispels both of these assertions.
When an out-of-town student uses school choice to attend a school, the school choice district receives "tuition" for that child. Just as with college tuition, that fee is the originating district's sole obligation to the school choice district. If you send your child to UMass Dartmouth you don't get a mid-year assessment for parking lot repairs nor so should a hometown district receive supplemental charges for capital improvements to another district's building where they're already paying tuition. As far as the disposition of school choice income, Dr. Hoffmann tells us he has shown the towns how the school choice money is used to reduce their assessments.
School choice is a good thing for Nauset, especially at the high school level. We shudder to think what Nauset's budget and curriculum offerings would look like without those 230 or so school choice students.
What went wrong with the $6.5M "green renovation" project
The primary flaw in the $6.5M "green renovation" project is the way the school board chose to notify the towns about the project.
Nauset School Committee members failed constituents.
Indeed, the project was discussed at several public meetings of the regional school board. This is a matter of record and beyond dispute. That said, who attends school committee meetings or understands the minutiae often discussed at those meetings? Certainly not your average taxpayer. This is why a regional school committee is comprised of elected members from each member town. It is incumbent upon these "incumbents" to keep their constituents informed about developments at the district level, lest they not long retain their incumbency.
Will the Nauset School Board start doing what they're elected to do?
We asked Dr. Hoffmann why he didn't discuss this project in his planning meetings with town administrators and finance committees. He said it was because he didn't have answers to obvious questions until the state finally funded Nauset's proposal. Hoffmann told us that he did not know the percentage of reimbursement Nauset would receive until the state finally sent him the award letter. We believe him.
The school board isn't "paid". They are however "elected", and that doesn't prevent the school committee members using the back channels at Town Hall to give their selectmen and their local FINCOM a friendly word that this project was going through the application process. We believe this is a basic obligation of a regional school committee who, after all, are elected to represent the taxpayers of their home town. School committee members "work for" the taxpayers, not for the school district.
Why a capital plan is crucial
Another concern that remains is the fact that the Nauset region has not maintained a long term capital plan since the 1990's. Dr. Hoffmann told us that the district will develop a capital plan in the near future and reiterated that this was a concern of his since he joined the district. A capital plan will cost about $50,000 to develop. The funds were in the budget last year but had to be diverted to the design fees for the high school's grant application. The superintendent explained that there is a significant element of expense to applying for the state grant, as design services and an "owner's project manager" must be engaged as part of the application process.
Nauset is a superb school district for a rural area like
the Lower Cape
We find it disappointing beyond words that Nauset has not maintained a consistent capital plan over the years. As we observed yesterday, just every business on the Cape knows what they're going to need over the next few years - when vehicles will wear out, when computers need to be upgraded, when it's time to up-size or down-size the physical plant.
Overall, Nauset is a superb school district for a rural area like the Lower Cape. We now believe that, with Dr. Hoffmann in place, Nauset has the right superintendent to take it to the next level of excellence. However a superintendent's charge is to execute Board policy. It is time that the Nauset School Committee starts planning for the district the way their taxpayers must plan for their businesses.
Why we can not endorse the project at this time
Finally, we once again commend the people of Eastham for bringing this matter into the public eye. While we don't envy Dr. Hoffmann the hot seat he occupied at the recent Eastham public hearing, we respect the Eastham Finance Committee and selectmen for at long last calling the Nauset Regional School District to account on capital planning. Eastham's public servants are watchful of the taxpayers' money and are acting in the finest tradition of volunteer town government. They deserve our support.
The Eastham FINCOM has pointed out that the state grants are available on a year-by-year basis. In recent days, President Obama has started campaigning for a $30 billion federal school renovation program that would modernize some 35,000 public school buildings around the country.
With the possibility of future state grants as well as the possible federal program the President is pushing, we agree with the majority of the Eastham Finance Committee. The Nauset Regional School Committee should be compelled to develop its capital plan and bring this back to the member towns before moving forward with a $6.5 million renovation of Nauset High School. We cannot in good conscience recommend this tax override at this time - but this decision resides with you, dear reader: the taxpayer who gets to vote at town meeting.
Concerned Citizens should act
Special town meetings on this topic are coming soon, with the first in Eastham on September 20th. In keeping with our recent "Mad As Hell" editorial, we encourage voters in the Nauset Region to study the Nauset proposal, attend town meeting and ask the tough questions.
Some feel our New England town meeting tradition is a quaint throwback to Colonial times. At Cape Cod Today we feel this tradition is the very essence of American democracy. It's also a great forum to get you, our dear reader, to come out from behind your computer, hurry to town meeting and tell your public officials when you're "mad as hell and not going to take this anymore!"