Selectmen Vow to Take Active Role in High School Construction
"This isn't a job we signed up for, but we're willing to take it." So said Falmouth Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy last night in describing the intent of Falmouth's top elected officials to assume greater responsibility for completing the renovation of Falmouth High School which awaits an April 7 Town Meeting vote for an additional $18.8 million to complete Falmouth's largest ever building effort.
All Selectmen who spoke at the session, which came on the heels of presentations by the Fire Department and DPW asking for millions in capital and operating funds, made it clear that they appreciated the work of the School Building Committee but saw a greater role for the Selectmen as the project moves forward. "This project is an enormity on the mind of every citizen," explained Selectman Carey Murphy in offering his opinion that the "picture and players" need to change to restore credibility to the project, which has seen unprecedented delays and cost overruns.
According to a statement made by Board Chair Murphy, the town has been working on the framework for a memorandum of agreement (MOA)between the Selectmen and School Building Committee which would require expenditures to be approved by the Selectmen, establish the School Superintendent as the "owner" of the project to provide direct accountability to that department, reorganize the School Building Committee to include a member with experience in commercial construction, and provide for Selectmen oversight and "accountability to the voters." This attempt to assert the authority of the town over the project was met with a tepid response by some Building Committee members.
It seemed as the School Building Committee presentation itself was destined to go the way of the project, as the projector loaded with pictures of work completed, milestones, and budgetary information, malfunctioned just before the meeting started and could not be repaired. Committee Chair Don Johnson opted, as with the project, to do the best he could with the situation and try to make it work. Committee members Mike Duffany, Bob Antonucci, and Peter Clark each discussed impacts of not approving the additional funds and the committee's desire to have the decision made at Town Meeting and not via a ballot vote. The Committee pointed to several successes in the project, including resolving unexpected challenges like the need for a new chimney, asbestos removal, and a new force sewer main. They also recommended an MOA, followed by the development of a "consensus leadership position" to present to Town Meeting.
It is this consensus that will be the real challenge to reach. The Selectmen will make their decision on just what to recommend to Town Meeting at their weekly session next Monday, including whether or not the question will appear on the May 20 ballot. Over the last two weeks, four of the five Board members have expressed a desire to have the citizens participate in this process via a ballot vote. Most members of the School Building Committee have expressed concern over the cost and delay of such a scenario. Selectman Catherine Bumpus noted that to "rush ahead is not our friend," and that without a "path of how we're moving forward," consensus will be difficult.
Selectmen made it clear that the tireless and dedicated work of School Building Committee members, which was sincerely recognized, must be coupled with additional efforts from within Town Hall. At one point, local watchdog Dan Shearer admonished the Selectmen - "You wanted the title of manager, now manage!" echoing a common misperception that the Board has had supervision over the project to date. The Board seems prepared now to do just that.
The frustration from the Selectmen's table was understandable. The leadership was refreshing. Rather than lament that citizens are "throwing rocks at them," as Selectmen Ahmed Mustafa complained, most Board members strongly supported the need for elected leaders to assert the authority vested in them by the voters and take charge. No one, especially the volunteers that have worked on this project, is happy with the current state of the project. Clearly, though, something has to be done if the community is going to support an additional $19 million to finish it. New leadership, energy, and management is necessary to restore credibility to this project. The School Building Committee and Selectmen have two weeks to figure out how best to do that. Town Meeting, perhaps the voters, and ultimately the generations of Falmouth High students to come will judge them on their success.