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Proceeding with new Florence Roche Elementary School passes Groton town meeting

Next step for proposed school is May 25 election

Voters gathered behind the current Florence Roche Elementary School to weigh building a new one. (JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN)
Voters gathered behind the current Florence Roche Elementary School to weigh building a new one. (JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN)
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GROTON — A new Florence Roche Elementary School was approved at Town Meeting and will proceed to a Proposition 2½ ballot question in this year’s town election.

Article 8 on the meeting’s warrant asked voters to approve temporary borrowing for the school’s construction. Marlena Gilbert, chair of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District Committee, said that the school’s construction would be reimbursable by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“You can see that we’re not building the Taj Mahal,” Gilbert said, pointing to the cost and size of comparable school projects. “We’re building a school that will be able to educate our kids for 50 years or more.”

The next step in building a new Florence Roche Elementary School will now be decided at the May 25 town election. (JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN)

Gilbert also addressed the argument the school could be renovated and students from Groton could continue to attend Swallow Union Elementary School in Dunstable. She said that if students continued to attend Swallow Union, Groton would be financially responsible when that school needed repairs. Gilbert said the combined renovation of two schools would be $62 million.

With the reimbursement from the MSBA, the total cost of the Florence Roche project will be $50.4 million. Gilbert said the School Committee was disciplined and wanted the project to come in under budget.

The new school will sit on the location of the current track where Town Meeting took place. As a result, the town will build a new track using Community Preservation Trust funds approved under Article 7.

One benefit of the new building will be the space available. Students currently attending Swallow Union have encountered situations where gym class and math intervention will be occurring on separate sides of a gymnasium curtain, said Gilbert.

The process for a new school’s construction began in 2019 when Town Meeting approved funding for a feasibility study. After exploring renovation options and various new locations, the study determined that the most cost-effective and beneficial to students solution was to rebuild the school at its current site.

“We’re incredibly excited by the support that the community gave us at the town meeting by voting to move this onto the ballot. This is an incredibly needed project for the district,” Superintendent Laura Chesson said. “It has everything it needs but not one thing more. We are one of the few projects with the MSBA where every square foot is fully reimbursable.”

“I think there’s a good consensus in the community. There weren’t a lot of objections raised at the town meeting but we never take anything for granted,” Chesson said, highlighting people may not have attended the town meeting due to the high winds and ongoing pandemic.

Chesson said that there is a video tour of the building on the project’s website which shows the building’s current condition and why it is in need of repair: https://www.florencerocheproject.org/

Voters also approved the town manager’s capital budget. The town will be able to purchase a new dump truck, two new police cruisers, and 25 new golf carts including 21 gas-powered and four electric. They will also be able to refurbish fire Engine 1, install a new roof on the main building of the country club, extend the country club cart path, and upgrade the town’s information technology infrastructure. Brick pointing at Town Hall and Legion Hall and maintenance at several town properties will also be funded with the money.

Additionally, voters approved funding to conduct an Affordable Housing Trust site assessment study after hearing from state Rep. Sheila Harrington. Harrington told the story of a mother of five on the brink of homelessness who called her office recently and stressed the importance of taking immediate action on affordable housing.

Town Meeting also banned the use of polystyrene (styrofoam) containers. The ban will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Individuals found violating the ban will receive a written warning for the first offense, be fined $100 for a second offense, $200 for a third violation, and $300 for fourth and additional violations.

To end the meeting, voters approved the town manager’s operating budget of $42,276,839 excluding debt and including regional school assessments. The budget is a 3.94% increase from FY21’s total of $40,675,996. The approved budget contains no new benefited positions and a hiring freeze remains in effect.