Future of Bedford kindergarten through Grade 12 is at stake
After more than two years of controversy and uncertainty, the future of high school education in Bedford could be resolved on Tuesday, Nov. 4, when the school board will put a high school proposal, as well as a proposal for an upper elementary school, before the voters at a special election.
The vote is scheduled for McKelvie Middle School, at the corner of County Road and Liberty Hill Road, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The first article on the ballot asks voters to approve plans to build a $30 million high school. Located on school district property on Nashua Road, the proposed school would be built to hold 1,200 students, with enough library, cafeteria and gymnasium space for 1,500 students.
According to the board’s current transition plan, the high school, if approved, will accept only freshmen and sophomores when it opens in the fall of 2008, and then add a junior class in 2009 and a senior class in 2010.
The first article also asks voters to approve a 20-year high school tuition contract with the city of Manchester, where Bedford high school students have been educated for more than 70 years.
School district officials say that this contract, which allows Bedford to begin transitioning its students to the new school in 2008, would ease the financial burden of a Bedford high school in that it would allow Bedford’s capital costs to Manchester to be spread out over the next nine years instead of the next two.
The ballot’s second, less controversial article asks voters to approve plans to build a $14 million school for grades 5-6 on school district property on County Road, thereby resolving crowding problems at McKelvie, which currently houses grades 6-8, and at the three existing elementary schools, which house kindergarten and grades 1-5.
If the voters approve the upper elementary school, board members say that construction will begin this winter so that the school can open in the fall of 2005. The board has hired the Lavallee-Brensinger architectural firm to design the proposed school, which would sit adjacent to McKelvie, and has hired Eckman Construction to build it.
Board members say that if voters approve the proposed upper elementary school in November instead of waiting until the regular elections in March, it will save the district a significant sum of money, and increase the chances that the school will be complete by September 2005.
Working with the school board and the upper elementary school planning committee, Lavallee-Brensinger has designed the school to hold 700 students, with enough cafeteria, library and gymnasium space for 800 students. Board members appear to agree that if the school is built, it will probably be full when it opens, and an expansion may be necessary within a few years.
The school board has not yet hired an architect to design the proposed high school, nor has it hired a builder to build it. However, they have hired Jordan and Barker Architects as consultants for the project. Board members say that if the high school is approved, the district will have several years to plan before construction begins.
Since this is a special election, 50 percent of the registered voters in town — out of roughly 13,000 total — must cast a ballot in order for the results of the election to be legally valid. If either or both of the proposals win the 60 percent majority required to pass, the district will fund the projects by issuing bonds, and pay off the bonds over the course of 30 years.
A proposal for a $45 million high school failed on Election Day in March of 2002, winning only 49 percent of the vote, but many opponents of that plan, including school board member Dan Sullivan and Bedford Taxpayers Association president Roy Stewart, have thrown their support behind the $30 million proposal, saying that it is more reasonably priced, and that Bedford’s student population in 2010, estimated to be close to 1,000 students, will warrant a high school.
However, the proposed schools will lead to a substantial tax increase, and many former high school opponents remain opposed to the current plan. They continue to argue, as they have in the past, that it makes sense, financially and educationally, to continue sending students to school in Manchester.
Some of these opponents, such as resident Elaine Tefft, are urging voters to reject the proposed schools, while others, such as resident Moe Villeneuve and the organization Citizens for a Sound Economy, are urging voters to boycott the election altogether.
After the 2002 March elections, at which 51 percent of the voters rejected a high school proposal, school district officials spent the remainder of the year, along with officials from Candia, Auburn and Hooksett, negotiating a 20-year high school tuition contract with Manchester.
Although previous tuition contracts had covered no more than five years, Manchester officials demanded a 20-year agreement in order to plan for extensive capital improvements to city schools, including West.
The negotiated contract, released publicly in January of this year, allows Bedford to withdraw its students after five, 10 or 15 years, but requires that Bedford pay $10.6 million in capital costs for at least 10 years, nine of which now remain.
Once the contract was released, Sullivan was the only board member to support it. During the months preceding the March 2003 vote, the other four board members, and many pro-high school residents, criticized the contract for allowing Bedford’s money to be spent on schools where Bedford students do not attend, and many argued that if Bedford rejected it, Manchester would make an offer more favorable to the town.
On Election Day in March 2003, 59 percent of Bedford voters rejected the contract, putting the town in a difficult situation after Manchester refused to renegotiate.
With no high school of its own and no place for Bedford students in Manchester, the school board, claiming that it had no choice, voted in June to accept the city’s offer of a three-year tuition agreement that requires Bedford to pay the city $10.6 million over the next three years (two of which now remain), on top of regular tuition.
Voters in the other sending towns, Auburn, Candia and Hooksett, approved the contract.
The short-term contract could lead to a massive tax hike, but there is an out. If Bedford is willing to accept the proposed 20-year contract by May of 2004, the 20-year contract will supersede the three-year contract, and Bedford can pay the $10.6 million in capital costs over the course of the next nine years instead of the next two.
Now many officials and residents agree that it is crucial for Bedford to sign the 20-year contract before next May in order to avoid the tax hike. As Sullivan put it, “The sword of Damocles is hanging over our heads.”
The idea to package the proposed high school and tuition contract in a single article came out of private negotiations earlier this year among leaders of local political organizations such as the BTA, the Bedford High Coalition, and the Taxpayers for a Quality Education.
In May, these leaders — many of them former political adversaries — publicly proposed that the tuition contract, the proposed high school, and the proposed upper elementary school be combined in a single article that would pass or fail in its entirety.
Later, however, the school board voted unanimously to let the upper elementary school appear independently on the ballot, saying that it would be unfortunate if opposition to the high school motivated voters to reject a three-part article, thereby forcing the district to wait until March to begin work on the upper elementary school.
Nevertheless, the political groups in town that supported the original compromise continue to support the high school proposal as such.
Supporters say that while former high school opponents such as the BTA have compromised by supporting this new proposal, high school proponents have compromised by accepting that the school will be put off until 2008. Furthermore, the proposed high school will be $15 million cheaper than the $45 million proposal that failed in March of 2002.
As part of the compromise, school officials have agreed that after the election, they will try to work out an arrangement with Manchester so that Bedford students who wish to attend West will have that option for the foreseeable future.
Instead of waiting until March for the annual elections, the school board decided earlier this year, after taking legal advice from school district attorney Eugene Van Loan, to hold a special election in November so that the high school proposal would not face competition from other articles potentially put on the ballot by citizens’ petitions.
Citizens will have an opportunity to put their own proposals before the voters in March, and if the November high school proposal fails, voters will have a second opportunity to approve the 20-year contract, thereby avoiding a massive tax hike.
According to comprehensive tax projections developed by the finance subcommittee of the high school planning committee and released by the school board, if voters approve both projects, residents can expect to see their property tax rate gradually increase every year for the next seven years, with an average annual tax increase of $1.18 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.
In part, these increases will pay for the two proposed schools, but in large part they are the result of recent state legislation calling for Bedford to receive millions less in adequacy aid from the state.
In 2010-11, the first year when a Bedford high school would house all four grades, the school portion of the tax rate would be $23.64 — or $8.29 higher than this year’s rate of $15.35, according to the official projections.
If residents reject the high school proposal but approve the upper elementary school, and then approve the tuition contract as a stand-alone item at the annual school district elections in March, the property tax rate will increase at a lower rate.
Under this scenario, the tax rate in 2010-11 is projected to be $21.26 — or $5.91 higher than this fall’s rate.
If both school proposals were to fail, but the 20-year contract were approved in March, officials estimate the 2010-11 tax rate to be $20.09, a difference of $4.74 from this year’s rate.
Although it is theoretically possible that voters will approve the proposed high school but reject the proposed upper elementary school, officials consider this unlikely. Although members of Bedford CSE and town councilor Dave Danielson have argued against the proposed upper elementary school, support for the project has been virtually unanimous at public forums and school board meetings.
Superintendent Ann Remus and school board members have said that if the high school proposal fails, students will continue to attend West and the quality of education in Bedford will therefore remain constant.
If the proposed upper elementary school fails, however, officials say crowding at Bedford’s existing schools will get worse, and the quality of education in town will decline.
“For the last five years, everyone has agreed that the town needs an upper elementary school,” said school board chair Sue Thomas.