PEPPERELL -- Residents voted overwhelmingly Monday night for placing a construction project for a new North Middlesex Regional High School on the town election ballot in April.
The approval at Special Town Meeting was a step toward approving the $89.08 construction project throughout the district. That process continues this week with Special Town Meetings in Townsend tonight and Ashby on Saturday morning.
To go forward, the project will have to pass at all three Special Town Meetings, and all three towns' ballot elections in April.
"I'm grateful to the residents here tonight that they'd see the importance of the building project. It clearly was in support of education," Superintendent Joan Landers said after Monday night's meeting.
Despite some residents' concerns that were raised about the tax impact, 383 voters approved the project, as well as two alternate articles, with a strong majority.
Of the total project cost, $40.2 million would be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The remainder would be jointly funded by the towns based on each town's student population. Pepperell would bear 50 percent of that cost, with Townsend paying 38 percent and Ashby paying 12 percent.
The tax impact on Pepperell voters is expected to be $142 per $100,000 valuation, with a partial amount hitting tax bills in 2017 and the full amount going into effect in 2018. In Townsend, the tax impact would be $159 per $100,000 valuation, and in Ashby it would be $143 per $100,000 valuation.
Voters also approved both project alternates, which would only go forward if all three towns vote in approval at Special Town Meetings and there are savings when the project goes out to bid.
Article 2 would allow for an $800,000 maintenance facility to be built to house and provide work space for the district's maintenance vehicles.
Article 3 would allow for athletic upgrades, an expansion of the track, upgrades to the bleachers and making the football field ready for the possibility of artificial turf in the future.
The total project budget would not exceed the $89.08 million allocated.
Some residents asked Building Committee Chairman Robert Templeton which alternate would get priority if there are only enough savings to pay for one.
"The athletics were originally part of the main project budget, we pulled it out in order to lower the main project budget," Templeton said. "The Building Committee is going to be the one to decide that. I really like athletics."
Landers also said she would personally support the athletic-field upgrades over the maintenance facility.
"I would focus on what the students need and what's going to directly benefit the students," Landers said.
Resident Debbie Nutter, also the town treasurer, spoke against approving the alternates before the vote.
"I think it's wonderful that we're doing this for the high school, but I think if there are any savings, they need to go back to the taxpayers and not do anything extra," Nutter said.
Some residents questioned the reliability of the MSBA, raising concerns about what would happen if they were to withdraw funding at the last minute.
Templeton said the MSBA had agreed to fund $40.2 million, and had a strong track record in following through on projects.
School Committee Chairwoman Susan Robbins thanked residents for their support.
"It was exciting to see the community turnout for the meeting and I'm hopeful that other towns will have equal interest in the Town Meetings," Robbins said. "I'm thankful that we're off to a favorable start and am looking forward to the Town Meetings."
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