Citing voter apathy as a key reason that architecture and engineering costs for a proposed community auditorium failed at the March polls, Auditorium Committee Chairman Tony DeFrancesco urged the School Board to “decide for the citizens what is in the best interest of the children.
“One could argue that while more than 1,200 people voted in favor of the auditorium, over 13,000 people didn’t come to vote no on the auditorium article. Apparently, more than 13,000 people didn’t care one way or the other if an auditorium was built,” he wrote in his final committee report. “When this happens, in my opinion, the School Board, who are in our government the educational experts, needs to do what other Londonderry School Boards have done in past years and act as a board of alderman and decide for the citizens what is in the best interest of the children.”
There are a lot of thing that wouldn’t have been built in Londonderry had a School Board accepted the first no vote, DeFrancesco added. He told the Board he hopes they learn from past history and help move the auditorium forward.
In addition to voter apathy, DeFrancesco attributed the failure of the warrant article to fund the auditorium to the Committee’s inability to properly market the project.
“The auditorium presented in report form is as close to perfect as you can get. Unfortunately, not a lot of people read it. It was online, it was everywhere. There was no reason for people not to read it, but for some reason they didn’t,” he said. “And a lot of the confusion, a lot of the misinformation was from people not going to the source.”
DeFrancesco recommended the Board consider more effective marketing of the project, and switching away from a two-step process of funding the auditorium.
“No matter how many times we explained that it was the only way to get a guaranteed price, people seemed to resist it,” he said.
Board member Nancy Hendricks thanked the Committee for its efforts and asked DeFrancesco what he thought the next steps should be.
DeFrancesco said he appreciates that the Board moved the auditorium up on the Capital Improvements Plan (CIP), including $500,000 for architecture and engineering costs in FY17 and $9 million in FY18 (see story page xx).
“I think we have a good package in place that someone with better tools and skills than I have could do a better job of promoting and marketing. But I challenge someone to come up with a better building and location,” DeFrancesco said. “Everyone has an opinion, but we have facts. I don’t think it’s possible. I have no vested interest in this, no children in the schools. To me, it’s all a need.”
Member John Laferriere expressed concern that if the District waits too long to bond the project, the cost of borrowing money will become less favorable.
“If we push this out two or three years, and we’re floating a $9 million bond, we may not have the appetite for it,” he said.
Business Administrator Peter Curro said he would contact the District’s financial advisor about a long-range scale of future interest rates.
“My concern is it becomes out of reach because the cost of money is too high,” Laferriere said.
“We wanted it on the radar of the CIP because, frankly, I think we have momentum,” member Leitha Reilly said. “It’s a combination of timing and affordability. It’s not always the right time, and people can’t always afford it right now, and that’s fine. It might have been no for this year, but I feel perhaps next year.”
Members noted the work the Committee completed can be used moving forward, and chairman Steve Young said many significant projects in town were funded after failing in a town election, such as the renovations at South School.
“This community is growing – the tax base will be there,” he said.
“As a Board, they need to figure out a way to get the voters to say yes. It’s as (Young) said, many things in Londonderry have failed multiple times, and the Board has continued to bring them back. They need to educate the voters to why this is the right year and why it’s the right thing to do,” DeFrancesco said. “I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have skills to do it.”
DeFrancesco said he represented all members of the Auditorium Committee when he issued the final report at the School Board meeting.
“The entire board was aware that was what I was going to say and how I was going to say it,” he said. “It was presented by the Chair, but the information was from everybody. Everybody had a chance to see the report and put input.”
Committee member Pollyann Winslow said at the group’s final meeting in April, all members had an opportunity to share reasons they thought the auditorium failed in March, which DeFrancesco included in his report.
However, Winslow has not yet seen DeFrancesco’s report to the Board, so she was not able to comment on what was said in the meeting.
“I felt we obviously didn’t share with the community as well as we could have some of the economic benefits of the auditorium,” she said. “I think people who are empty nesters are going to need to sell their three- and four-bedroom homes to people with children, and if they look at the school system and are thinking about the fact that NEASC (accrediting agency New England Association of Schools and Colleges) has given marks of deficiency for not having a facility, that’s not going to help anything.”
However, Winslow emphasized the importance of listening to and respecting the needs of the community.
“We want the School Board to stay on top of this and I would like this to become a reality, but I don’t know what the timing is,” she said. “I think people would absolutely love this, should they be able to experience it. Hopefully, everybody who served will continue to listen to the community, talk to friends, watch the economy and see if it picks up, find out what NEASC says to us and maybe it will be obvious to us when it’s the right time to bring it back up. Right now, I don’t think it’s obvious. I don’t think that much has changed since March.”
Winslow suspects gaining support for the auditorium comes down to money, and that people will likely be ready to approve funding when they see revenue coming into the community from development around the airport reflected on their tax bills.
“It will be wonderful when it happens, but we have to be careful to put our community first and let our community find their happy medium where they feel they can afford something and are ready to bite off more.”
Although the Committee has dissolved, DeFrancesco said moving the auditorium forward is “still the right thing to do.”
“The need doesn’t go away, it still needs to be done,” he said.?
The board took no action, other than move funding for the auditorium to the top of the CIP.