District seeks Town Meeting support as Elmwood School enters MSBA pipeline for replacement

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Special Town Meeting voters could take the first step toward a potential new Elmwood School.

By a unanimous vote, School Committee members agreed Thursday to place an article on the May 8 Special Town Meeting warrant seeking money for a feasibility study to look at the possibility of a new school.

The cost of the study, estimated at about $1 million, is proposed to come out of the Legacy Farms host community agreement (HCA).

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) voted Wednesday that the Elmwood School project could enter into a period of eligibility. The district has asked to be considered as far back as 2008.

During this period, the district must form a School Building Committee, provide information about proposed educational facilities, teaching methodology, grade configurations and program offerings and confirm community authorization and funding, among other requirements.

The 270-day period ends in January, and next month’s Special Town Meeting — which is being held within the Annual Town Meeting — is the only meeting before then. This adds “urgency” to the issue, superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said.

Elmwood School was built in 1964, and its age “makes it very difficult to offer students state-of-the-art technology,” Cavanaugh said.

Photographs displayed at the meeting and taken before the pandemic showed crowded conditions, with instruction taking place on the stage and at the top of a staircase.

“Some of the common spaces in the building, for example the library and the cafeteria, are markedly too small for the ever-expanding student body,” Cavanaugh said.

There was some discussion at the meeting about whether the funding for the feasibility study should come from the HCA rather than general taxation.

Committee member Joe Markey argued that the need for the Elmwood project reflected the building’s age and not projected population growth and related school enrollment increases, which is what the HCA was created to address.

He also questioned Cavanaugh’s contention that using HCA money would not impact taxpayers. The HCA fund is limited, he said, and as enrollment increases in the years ahead, “we will be going back to the taxpayer” for money, he said.

“It’s very tempting to use that for every little thing that comes up,” he added. But the time will come, he said, when the fund will be tapped out and “we’re going to wish we had it. Wherever possible, let’s not use it.”

Committee member Nancy Cavanaugh said that while the school have may needed work even before enrollment growth, “the scope of the work is affected by population” increases.

The study cost is a “one-time investment to build capacity,” committee chair Amanda Fargiano said. She said this was a “good use of the funds.”

In today’s climate, “people are hurting,” committee member Lya Battle-Rafferty said.

She said she would support “not adding more burden this year” on taxpayers and instead using HCA funds for the study.

The superintendent said the time has come to look at the overall growth needs at all grade levels. The Elmwood proposal, she said, is “a growth-related project in very large part.”

The earliest the project could begin is July 2023.

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