A warrant article to fund the architecture and engineering costs for a high school auditorium has failed, leaving the decision of how to move forward with the proposed facility in the hands of the School Board.
The community voted 1,264 in favor of an auditorium, 1,791 against.
School Board Chairman Leitha Reilly said she thinks the results of the election show the timing for an auditorium wasn’t right this year.
“Maybe next year,” she said.
“I was totally taken by surprise,” Pollyann Winslow, who served on the Auditorium Committee, said of the vote.
Before moving forward with an auditorium for the community, Winslow said it will be important to identify why the community voted as it did. And she suspects a key factor is the expense to the taxpayer.
“Obviously, people are struggling financially more than is generally understood,” she said. “I think people feel there’s value to an auditorium and there are some wonderful events and opportunities that the community would be able to experience if the auditorium was available to them; but, honestly, it may be financially a greater hardship then we recognize sometimes.”
Winslow noted that although the committee and School Board in making the proposal to the community showed there is revenue coming into the Town through development, she understands that the taxpayer “doesn’t hear the ching of the coins in the coffers yet.
“There are a lot of expenditures the Town needed to operate the community and this appeared to be more than the voters thought they could do,” Winslow said. “We need to get a read of the community and what they’re trying to say before we can move forward.”
Winslow said she hasn’t given up on the fact that the community needs the auditorium, but said the community has “to do things in the right time.”
“We have to be led to the right next step. We shouldn’t arbitrarily put this back on the ballot next year,” she said, noting it wouldn’t be right to force the expense on the taxpayer. “That’s not the way to treat the residents of our community.”
State Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, who serves as chairman of the Town’s Elder Affairs Committee and has heard concerns from seniors in town who say they may have to move if taxes continue to increase, voiced concerns over the impact the auditorium would have on those living on fixed incomes.
“I don’t think the Town should move forward with the project until more debt is paid off,” he said. “There are people who are hurting now. The private sector isn’t getting raises and their pay can’t support the tax rates going up. I’m not opposed to an auditorium, I think it’s a great idea. I would just prefer to see the Town pay off more debt instead of keep borrowing.”
School District Business Administrator Peter Curro said the District still thinks the auditorium would enhance programs, such as the arts, as well as serve many educational purposes.
“It’s up to the School Board to decide if they want to bring back the whole proposal as it is, or go back and have the study committee consider problems brought up in Deliberative Session, like parking, and make some changes if they can,” he said. “My guess would be they will probably take a year off to regroup and determine what we can do and what we should do. Bringing back something next March isn’t out of the question, it’s just a matter of do they want to do something that fast or do they want to wait a bit.”
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which provides accreditation for the high school, has mentioned the auditorium/ performance space issue for 40 years, according to NEASC Steering Committee Co-Chair Steven Juster, a teacher at Londonderry High School.
“As a refurbished middle school, NEASC gave us time to upgrade the facility. We have added the gym/field house, high school level science classrooms and library. In that time, all the Class L schools in the state now have auditoriums or dedicated performance spaces/ stages. Except us,” Juster wrote in an email.
“On the Five-Year NEASC Progress Report, submitted March 1 of this year, the auditorium issue was one of their ‘highlighted recommendations,’ which means they ask for a detailed response as to why it has not been completed,” Juster said. “They expect that as our next step to being a high school facility. People can say the economy is down, or we have a population of elderly (fixed income) or unemployed or underemployed people; but, NEASC can see that every other town has similar aspects of their population, and every high school of our size has an auditorium space. Forty years of a slow economy is not valid. This is why they have highlighted this recommendation in the report. They expect us to complete a high school facility.”
It’s possible NEASC will decide the District’s formation of the Auditorium Committee and the study that was completed is satisfactory until the Pre Self-Study report, which they will ask for in two years. Or NEASC may decide that the District is deficient in the School Resources Standard because the high school doesn’t have a facility yet, according to Juster.
At that point, the school may not be accredited until the issue is resolved, which can affect how colleges view Londonderry High students applying to their school.
“Colleges may just see the school’s name on the list of schools with deficiencies and decide, by the standards of NEASC, an independent auditing system, that the education is deficient,” Juster said. “NEASC may decide, since the results of the vote were not in the report, to renew our accreditation and ask for a progress report from us in the next year or two to determine our continued progress with the highlighted recommendation. We will not know for a few months, when they respond to our Five-Year Progress Report.”
The last time the School District considered an auditorium was in 2005, when a study committee received seed money for architectural renderings and presented a large facility the size of Pinkerton Academy’s performance center, according to Curro.
“Based on the size and scope, it was estimated it would cost around $17 million to build the auditorium as it had been proposed,” he said. “It never went to vote.”
“I think we need to have a discussion around it,” School Board member John Laferriere said. “I know everyone did a lot of work and I think it was good work. We’re in a position now where if we chose to revisit it, a lot of the base work was done. The $500,000 was to go to the next step of a shovel-ready plan and getting the total costs to build it to go to bond if we chose to do it. I believe the voters have spoken and I do realize everything has gone up and we had some other pressing issues on the Town side, with the Fire Department and employment negotiations this year. We have to understand where the Town is at as a whole.”
Laferriere noted his primary concern is the cost of money, as he expects it will only become more expensive to bond the project in the future. He added that perhaps there should be a conversation about what can be done to bring the cost of the auditorium down to something that is more palatable to the voters, such as fundraising by the subcommittee.
“We had a good, solid committee. Tony (DeFrancesco) did a lot of work, and we only spent $30,000 total,” Laferriere said. “In my opinion, that was money well spent. We got a lot of information that was there to inform voters and give an understanding of what the costs would be. All the groundwork was done for a shovel ready plan, it was presented and the Town said we don’t need this right now.”
Whether or not the Board should revisit the plan or bring it back to the voters next year, that’s a discussion the Board has to have, according to Laferriere.
“I think the best option is to explore all the options,” he concluded.