Plans for a new high school in Wilmington will soon be moving through the permitting process after voters at Special Town Meeting on Saturday appropriated funding for the $81.6 million project.
Many of them wearing blue, the school’s team color, voters packed the high school gymnasium and spilled over into the auditorium, waiting more than an hour for the meeting to begin. When the vote was finally taken, the project won 98 percent support, with 1,426 in favor, 31 against.
The turnout was the largest in memory for a Wilmington Town Meeting, with more than 9 percent of the town’s 15,385 registered voters in attendance. Town Manager Michael A. Caira, who moved to Wilmington as a child and has served as his hometown’s chief administrative officer for 22 years, said local leaders have in the past had to delay the start of town meetings to ensure a quorum of 150 voters.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ said Robert Hayes, the School Committee secretary, of the vote after the results were announced to cheers and applause. Hayes also serves as chairman of the Wilmington High School 4.0 Committee, which since September had been working to rally support for the project. “I’m ecstatic. Words can’t explain how proud I am of my town right now.’’
Caira said the vote clears the way for the next step: drafting construction documents and securing the permits required for the project. Construction is expected to begin in July. Superintendent Joanne M. Benton said the new high school should be open by the fall of 2014, giving “our students the 21st-century facility they need and deserve to receive a 21st-century education.’’
Under the funding plan for the new school, the Massachusetts School Building Authority is expected to pay about $38 million, or roughly 46 percent, of the costs. The town will be responsible for the remainder, expected to be about $44 million. That will be paid by a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion, an increase in property taxes for the years it takes to pay off the loan.
For the owner of the average single-family home assessed at $357,066, the project will add an average of $164 to the annual property tax bill over the 25-year life of the debt.
Initially, the added tax for the average homeowner would be about $230 per year and will drop to about $100 annually in the final years of the bond, Caira said.
The plans approved by the building authority last month call for a three-story school with collaborative learning spaces, a central courtyard, larger classrooms, and science labs that meet state standards. The structure will be built on the same parcel as the current high school, adjacent to the existing building.
The current school, which was built in 1950 and renovated several times, has been “compromised by decades of usage,’’ Benton said, noting that a study of the building conducted last year found that “technological improvements and upgrades were problematic’’ given the age of the structure and that students and staff were “impacted negatively by the facility.’’
Saturday’s Special Town Meeting was the second of two steps required to move the high school project forward. At the special town election on Dec. 6, voters had signaled their support for the new school by a margin of 3 to 1, with 3,778 voters favoring a debt exclusion.
Despite the groundswell of support for the new high school, the project is not without its critics. One resident at the Special Town Meeting asked architects to consider moving the school back 100 feet to provide more of a buffer between the building and nearby wetlands. She voiced fears the current footprint would cause flooding in nearby basements.
Donald M. Walter, principal at Newburyport-based Dore & Whittier Architects, Inc., reassured residents that storm-water runoff would be addressed properly within the site’s boundaries. He noted that the design was in compliance with federal, state, and local wetlands bylaws.
Another resident questioned the wisdom of investing in a new high school at a time when many local families are facing financial hardship. “A building does not educate our children,’’ said Joanne Shukis, who has lived in Wilmington for 55 years. “Quality teachers educate our children.’’
Another opponent, Kevin F. MacDonald, questioned whether construction would unearth hazardous material, the result of an oil spill in the mid-1980s; Caira assured voters that the spill had been remediated. The area where it occurred will be transformed into a parking lot, in compliance with state environmental regulations, Walter said.
MacDonald also presented an article he had placed on the warrant to preserve the current Wilmington High School, arguing the building could be leased to generate revenue for the town. His proposal, which would have made construction of the new school impossible, was soundly defeated in a voice vote.
In related business, Special Town Meeting voters passed an article authorizing the town to purchase a parcel of land from the First Baptist Church for the new high school at a cost of $15,000. The town for years has used the sliver of land, which runs through the high school softball field, by unwritten agreement, Caira said.
Town officials noted that Wilmington, which has a AA-plus bond rating, is well positioned to take on the new debt, having recently retired the debt incurred for construction of a new middle school and public service building.
“Not only is the town ready for this [project], it is the right time,’’ said Selectman Michael J. Newhouse. “The town of Wilmington always has, always will, take pride in enhancing the quality of education for our children.’’