Support Builds for Bond Referendum
Westfield BOE will hold one more public meeting before Sept. 24 vote.
In 12 days, residents of Westfield will have the opportunity to make one decision that will determine the fate of two separate multi-million dollar capital projects. Though it remains unclear whether the public will vote to approve or deny the much-discussed bond referendum that will be on the ballot on Sept. 24, the answer does seem to be becoming clearer as the crucial date approaches.
Since the Board’s decision in June to include funding for both district roof repairs and a lighted turf field installation as a single bond proposal, the public outcry has been loud. Some members said they would have preferred to decide each project on its own merits. Taxpayers contrasted the roof repair – almost unanimously viewed as an urgent necessity – with a turf field that some felt was more of a luxury. Residents of the high school area expressed concern with potential nuisances spilling over and affecting their property. Others balked at the sheer size of a $16.9 million bond and the all-or-nothing stakes that attached the two projects.
But after a summer that saw impassioned meetings in public and fierce discussions online, last night's gathering remained largely civil and calm. Most in attendance either expressed full support for the bond referendum or raised issues to the Board that were addressed shortly after.
The meeting was held at the cafeteria of Roosevelt School, in part to allow for more space for members of the public to attend and partake in the discourse. About 25 members of the public were in attendance and eight residents addressed the Board on the bond issue, but most of their questions were answered adequately by its members or a team of experts on hand. Others merely spoke up to offer the Board their gratitude or to express excitement that their sport may soon receive the same advantages that football and other programs have enjoyed since a turf field was installed at Kehler Stadium in 2006.
The Board turned to the bond referendum option when it struggled to find other ways to fund two projects it views as urgent and important, and members say they aim to act quickly in order to take advantage of lower interest rates and favorable bidding environments in the construction industry.
“We felt these projects were both necessities at this point,” Board Vice President David Finn said last night.
In the past, school districts had been able to put aside money within annual operating budgets to eventually pay for major capital projects. However, because budgets are now subject to a two percent annual cap, such an approach is no longer an option. Additionally, districts are limited in what they can use a bond to pay for, as such measures may only be allocated for major long-term projects and not, for example, additional computers or textbooks.
The $16.9 million bond would increase the average assessed home’s annual tax bill by $45 in 2013-2014, according to a presentation given last night by Superintendent Margaret Dolan. Over the life of the bond, the average home’s tax bill is not expected to increase by more than $55 (including existing debt).
The roof replacement proposal has received strong approval for months, after the Board spent several years seeking to address the growing concern. In her presentation, Dolan said the average age of the district’s 10 school buildings is 73 years. Though the roofs of most of the buildings have lasted longer than their original lifespan, as Dolan said, “they’re old.” Should the bond be approved, $13.6 million will be allocated to replace the roofs of all district buildings during the summer of 2013, representing 77 percent of the district’s total roof surfaces.
The disrepair of the roofs had also held up other objectives. The district had approached solar investment companies several years ago with the goal of replacing the roofs and reducing energy costs, but no deals were reached because the roofs were so dilapidated. Once they are replaced, Board members said insulation will be upgraded so that future solar installation would be possible at no cost to the district.
“It’s a savings on an expense that will have meaningful results in the future,” Board President Richard Mattessich explained last night.
The bond’s primary sticking point has been the additional $3.3 million that would be used to install a lighted all-purpose athletic field at the high school. The Board has justified the need for such a facility by pointing to student population growth. According to Dolan’s presentation, enrollment in district schools rose by 17.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, with a 31 percent spike in athletics participation. The proposed high school field would not only provide regulation-sized field for soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and softball teams, but would also be used for all high school student physical education classes. Board members say the field would alleviate scheduling concerns and make the town’s fields more weather-proof, and such a facility would help Westfield stay competitive with those of similar towns.
Dolan’s thorough presentation addressed many questions members of the public had before they had the opportunity to ask them, and a team of consultants and experts were also present to clarify any technical ambiguities that anyone was concerned with. As was addressed at the last meeting, the field’s lighting system will be targeted to allow only minimal spillage. Using a metric known as footcandles, the district’s lighting expert said the high school field lights would result in a spillage of 0.0 to 0.2 on the property of the residents closest to the field. By comparison, the average streetlight results in a spillage of 3.0 to 4.9 footcandles. The lighting will also be targeted for specific sports and Board members said the lights would only be on during practices and games. A password-protected system would allow the lights to be controlled remotely. The lights will not be used on Sunday nights.
Dolan also said the Board is already in discussions with the town and the Armory to avoid scheduling conflicts. A public address system will not be installed at the field and the high school’s restrooms will be available during events. Only one regulation game will be permitted at a time and games and practices will be scheduled to end by 9 p.m.
The last public meeting on the bond will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, September 19. Dolan implored the public to read the information that has been made available and to partake in the vote on Sept. 24.
“Please take the time to become informed,” she said. “The choice is up to you.”