Town Council puts $2 million up for school feasibility study

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North Attleborough Town Hall
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abass@northstarreporter.com

The Town Council has put aside $2 million in Free Cash for a feasibility study to either renovate or rebuild the 50-year-old high school.

After engaging in an intense conversation about costs and estimates, the council voted 8-1 on Feb. 13 with Councilor Mark Gould Jr. voting in opposition.

To receive reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) North Attleborough is required to undergo a feasibility study. This  evaluates whether the town and school district can create parameters for a project design.

The precise cost of the study has yet to be determined by the MSBA, but based on estimates from past projects, the price ranges from $1.2 to $2 million.  If North Attleborough does not go forward with the feasibility study, it will not receive funding from the MSBA to renovate or rebuild the high school.

Gould, the lone ‘no’ vote, said he favored a feasibility study, but did not see why the council had to put aside the specific amount of $2 million.

“I agree we need a feasibility study, but I’m not sure we need $2 million,” Gould said. “Our taxpayers live on a budget, and so should their government.”

Gould offered an amendment to the measure that would change the $2 million price tag to $1.5 million.

Town Council Vice President John Simmons, a longtime supporter of the initiative to fix the high school complex, spoke against this idea.  Simmons said the $2 million, while a large amount, was not the actual price of the study.

“The study is not the project,” Simmons explained. “A vote for this study is not necessarily a vote for this project.”

Councilor Darius Gregory, chair of the Finance Subcommittee, agreed with Simmon’s comments and said if the town does pay $2 million, the MSBA will provide reimbursement.

Gould warned councilors about the political ramifications of this vote, citing the upcoming Town Election in April.

“When I knock on doors, this is the issue they get involved with,” Gould said. “They get involved when taxes are in play.”

Gould’s hypothesis that voters would be upset by this vote held some truth that night, as two people in the audience spoke out on the issue.

Laurie Lawes told the council they were being fiscally irresponsible to set aside $2 million for the high school and not focus on the elementary schools in the town. She said the council was trying to create a new high school similar to Tri-County Vocational High School and that too much focus goes into the high school’s sports program.

“We are relying on you to be fiscally responsible,” Lawes told the council. “You’re trying to make another Tri-County, you cannot make this a Tri-County.”

John Donohue spoke in favor of the study—as it was a chance for the town to be proactive in helping their schools. Donohue, who has served on the town’s Board of Health for 15 years, said past leaders were not able to take action, but the current council has the opportunity to do what is right for the schools.

“You cannot fix a multitude of sins,” said Donohue. “This council is facing the sins of our fathers because they did not do anything to fix the problems in the past.” “All we can do, we have to do this because it’s conjecture.”

Councilor Dan Donovan pushed back on the idea that the council was not being fiscally responsible. Donovan said past leaders of North Attleborough have not acted to fix the high school, but he and his colleagues now have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to address the issue.

He added that the town did ask the MSBA about funding for the elementary schools, but the authority said the high school was the only building eligible for review.

“In a perfect world, the MSBA would offer us money for the elementary school, but we need a high school,” Donovan said. “This is not a new tax on our residents. This is the $2 million we have.”

Councilor Patrick Reynolds agreed with Donovan in that this could be a big step forward for North Attleborough students. Reynolds, who will not seek another term as town councilor, said this would be one of the last big votes he ever does, and said he wants to make a difference.

“We have so much momentum on our side,” Reynolds said. “I think we have an opportunity to be different kinds of leaders.”