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February 24. 2013 11:00PM

Windham group: New school is bad idea

WINDHAM - A small but vocal group of Windham taxpayers is urging its neighbors to take a closer look at how a proposal for a new middle school may affect local taxes.

Longtime town resident Ken Eyring - who formed the Windham Taxpayers Coalition with Rep. Mary Griffin, former Rep. Rick Okerman and local business owner Phil Messina early last month - said he's deeply concerned with "the direction the school district is going with their planning and spending."

The $31 million bond item for the construction of a new school on London Bridge Road for seventh- and eighth-graders was moved to the March ballot following a brief discussion during the school deliberative session earlier this month.

School officials said the district's current facilities are over capacity by several hundred students, with a need for about 26 more classrooms. The new middle school would accommodate around 500 students, with 16 regular classrooms, four lab rooms and several other rooms for special education needs.

Cost estimates total $29.7 million for the new school, with the remainder to fund field improvements such as multi-purpose turf.

But Eyring said those figures don't tell the entire story.

"I think there's a definite disconnect between the school board and the people who live in Windham," he said.

In 2001, the school district's budget was $17.9 million, Eyring said. This year, the budget has increased to more than $45 million. Eyring said interest costs for the new middle school could easily bring that number up to over $50 million by 2015.

"Not only is the cost of the new seventh- and eighth-grade project almost identical to Windham High School, it only provides for half of the grades," he said.

This year's school tax rate is $15.88  per thousand dollars of assessed property value, and if all warrant articles pass, including the school construction item, the 2014 school tax rate would increase to nearly $18.00 per thousand.

In 2015, the rate would increase to $19.70 per thousand. Eyring said that in the worst-case scenario, the project might not be eligible for state building aid, meaning that unlike when the high school was built, taxpayers would be assuming 100 percent of construction costs.

In the best-case scenario, Eyring said, the town's school tax burden would increase by a minimum of nearly $8 million in just three years.

But should the new school open in 2015, coalition members suspect additional tax burdens based on staff operating costs.

"We feel the projected operational costs of the proposed school aren't realistic, and as we move into subsequent years our district will hire many more administrators and educators to fill those classrooms." Eyring said. "Before we go down this path of limitless spending requests, we need to have a well-thought-out vision finding solutions for all of our needs. So why are we building a school for a capacity that may or may not be here 20 years from now?"

The father of a middle school student, Eyring said he realizes there are no simple answers when it comes to balancing fiscal responsibility with the obligation to provide for local children.

"I'm all for having a strong education system, but I'm also for spending wisely," he said.

One potential alternative to a new middle school might be to add a new wing on the existing high school, a solution Eyring believes might be worth researching further.

"There's a lot of issues that need to be considered," he said. "But right now its important to realize the character and nature of our town is at a crossroads. Things are going to change here and maybe not for the better if this new school passes. People just can't afford it."

Resident Bob Bresnahan moved to Windham about six years ago following his retirement. A father of four and grandfather of eight, Bresnahan said he appreciates the importance of providing a good education for the next generation but urges fellow citizens to consider all the factors involved.

"I'm not interested in spending this money until we take a closer look at all the alternatives," Bresnahan said. "The truth is, a tax hike like this is going to cause people like myself to either leave town or suffer devastating consequences."

For more information on the Windham Taxpayers Coalition, visit www.windhamtaxpayers.org.

Voting on all town and school articles will take place on Tuesday, March 12, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Windham High School.

aguilmet@newstote.com


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