With a margin of only 15 votes, the vote was a real “squeaker” in Wilmington, where 232 voters cast ballots in favor of the bond, and 217 voted against it. Despite a higher tax impact from the bond in Whitingham, voters there supported the measure by 41 votes, with 164 in favor and 123 opposed.
It was 15 years ago this month that the Wilmington School Board first received an engineering report on the condition of the current high school building, then home to Wilmington Middle/High School. Eventually, the board would appoint a facilities committee that, after several years of work, would recommend a combination of new construction and major renovation at the existing site. But when it came to voting on the bond for the project, Wilmington voters balked. Despite the availability of state aid, the $9 million project would cost Wilmington taxpayers more than $17 million, thanks to Act 60’s sharing pool. Under the state education financing scheme, Wilmington paid about a dollar to the state for every dollar spent above the state education block grant.
Shortly after the vote, at the urging of voters in both towns, Wilmington and Whitingham began negotiating what would become a proposal to merge their middle and high schools. Voters approved the creation of the Twin Valley joint school district in 2004. In 2006 there was another proposal for another school – this time a new school in a new location near the Whitingham/Wilmington town line. A $17 million bond was resoundingly defeated by voters in both towns.
After the 2006 proposal, a new facilities committee began work on a scaled-back proposal. Originally the committee sought a return to a renovation/reconstruction proposal at the current high school. During that time, however, the state ceased offering 30% funding for school construction projects. The lack of state aid, and other factors, pushed the cost of the project beyond that which board members felt taxpayers would tolerate.
The state would, however, offer 50% funding for school consolidation construction projects that would result in the elimination of at least one school building. Board members calculated that the 50% funding combined with the savings from the elimination of a building and consolidation of the two towns’ K-12 programs would significantly reduce the impact of a bond on local taxpayers.
Phil Taylor joined the process as a facilities committee member, later he was chair of the committee, and even later he became a school board member, and is now chair of the Wilmington School Board. Taylor has shepherded the project through several phases between 2007 and this week’s vote. Taylor says Tuesday’s successful vote is just starting to sink in.
“I’m feeling pretty good, it’s really a load off my mind,” he says.
With the approval of the bond by voters, Taylor says the board can finally look forward to concentrating on the educational program. “My real passion is to be more involved with the programming,” he says. “I don’t think people know how much time has been consumed by this, other facilities issues, union contracts, the budget – all those things take up a lot of time. Taking that huge weight of what we’re going to do about a high school off our shoulders really frees up the board to focus on more substantial aspects of education.”
Taylor says he would have preferred a wider margin in both towns, and he hopes the close vote won’t encourage anyone to circulate a petition to reconsider. Taylor says some “no” voters may have been under the impression that the consolidation is just a continuation of the Twin Valley concept started in 2004. “But there’s a very serious element here that, financially, we have to do this to keep our heads above water and fund the construction.”
Although the board hasn’t discussed an immediate timetable for their next steps, Taylor says the board will have to scramble to get the process started as soon as possible. “We need to expedite this as quickly as we can. I think parents and families need to see some positive movement.”
Taylor says groundbreaking should happen by fall 2012, and construction crews would work on outside projects through the school year. “The following summer we can move on the interior work when the kids are out of the building.” Students should be in the renovated Deerfield Valley Elementary School and Twin Valley Middle/High School by fall 2013, if all goes according to schedule.