HARVARD — As debate rages over the pros and cons of the Municipal Building Committee’s (MBC) recommendations on how to overhaul three century-old, town-owned buildings, the School Committee opted on Feb. 28 to stay out of the fray.
The School Committee membership participated in the Feb. 5 Quad Board meeting. At that time, a straw vote was taken to gauge interest in the MBC proposal. The Quad Board is comprised of the Finance, School and Capital Planning and Investment committees, along with the selectmen.
The consensus then was strongly in favor of a Town Hall renovation project that sticks to the building’s current “footprint,” and considers but does not include potential future expansion plans. The group was fragmented on what to do otherwise with the Hildreth House and Old Library and where exactly the Council of Aging program should be centered.
The QuadBoard straw poll runs contrary to the MBC’s efforts. The MBC is pushing forward with a warrant article seeking approval for design work for the renovation of and additions to both Town Hall and the Hildreth House, with the Hildreth House serving as a Council on Aging center. The funding source is not defined but the design work is projected to cost about $225,000.
Chairman Keith Cheveralls placed the MBC matter on the School Committee agenda to gauge desire to revisit the matter. However, the membership agreed they did not want to take a collective stance on the MBC Town Meeting warrant article.
At the outset of the meeting, Municipal Building Committee member Lucy Wallace expressed surprise that the matter was before the School Committee, and she appealed for the school board to steer clear of making a specific recommendation to Town Meeting.
Wallace, who served as a selectman for 12 years, said “I don’t recall any board taking a position on warrant articles before the selectmen have voted a warrant.” That subsequently did occur the next night, March 1. “I’m curious also about why you’re voting a night before the MBC make a presentation to the Board of Selectmen. The Council on Aging does not take positions on School Committee articles.”
MBC member Carline Philips put it more bluntly, stating that a School Committee block vote “terrifies me.” She appealed that such a vote would effectively be “taking away the town’s people’s rights to make decisions.”
Cheveralls addressed the fears, stating there was “nothing ulterior or clandestine about it.”
Cheveralls said that in talking with fellow Capital Planning and Investment Committee member George McKenna, “the feedback that CPIC received from MBC was that the straw poll appeared to have limited value.” Cheveralls asked if the committee wanted to weigh in separately regarding the townwide impact the MBC project will have on Harvard’s constricted finances.
“It’s definitely a big project and it will compete head to head with very scarce resources,” Cheveralls said. For the schools, student-enrollment figures are declining and there’s an increased reliance on revenues from the MassDevelopment contract to education Devens children. “I truly believe the School Committee needs to look at this.”
Cheveralls left it to the committee. “The challenge I”ve heard from MBC and others is that the School Committee didn’t know enough with regard to the full MBC report. I’m not going to profess that I know every word in here but I’ll assure you I’ve spent a substantial amount of time” studying it.
The committee didn’t want to go there.
Committee member Kirsten Wright said while she’s immersed herself in interviews and the report to get a better feel for the MBC recommendations, she says “I’m not done yet. There’s more that I want to do and I need to do.”
Wright said, “can we afford it? What are the implications to me as a taxpayer and the town as a whole as far as affordability? I need to talk to people on the Finance Committee and people who understand the big picture in ways that I don’t.”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable representing my individual ideas as a group,” said Wright. “I’m not on board for that at this point.”
Patty Wenger agreed. Virginia Justicz added “we’re not a direct stakeholder here,” though “obviously everyone else is a stakeholder as well.”
“We’re always going to have this delicate balancing but I don’t think its incumbent on the School Committee to opine as to whether the DPW ought to get a truck and what we’re allocating to the roads and fire equipment.”
Piali De sounded off similarly. “I don’t see us as a stakeholder in this. Yeah, there’s a long rippled effect. That’s not our business. If it came to a vote, I was going to abstain. I haven’t read the report. I haven’t had the time. We have enough on our plates.”
Cheveralls closed the discussion by again inviting MBC Chairman Ron Ostberg to attend a School Committee meeting to “make a presentation to the School Committee to raise awareness.”
On a separate track is a citizens petition filed with the town clerk’s office that seeks to proceed, with undefined funding sources, to refurbish both Harvard Town Hall and the Old Library within their present footprints, save for added space as needed to install elevator shafts. The citizens petition also seeks to retain the Hildreth House for Council on Aging use without any expansion or renovation at this time.
In other business, the committee accepted without comment the resignation letter of School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. Cheveralls reported that there are 17 applicants for the interim superintendent position for the coming year. Applications were accepted through Feb. 28.