A new secondary school campus in North Reading will move forward as originally planned after voters at a special town election last Friday approved an additional $15.5 million for the project.
Town officials said the extra funding, which reflects issues discovered at the site and an upswing in the construction market, was needed to avoid delays and drastic changes to the scope of the work.
A small turnout of voters approved a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion — a property tax hike for the 25 years it will take to pay off the debt — to preserve the scope and timeline for the project, which will integrate a new high school and a renovated middle school with shared core facilities.
Just over 28 percent of North Reading’s 10,825 registered voters went to the polls on Friday, with 1,964 in favor and 1,090 against approving the additional funding.
The project is expected to add $876 to the annual property tax bill of $7,257 for the owner of the average single-family home assessed at $452,437. Roughly $700 of that increase can be attributed to last year’s approval of the initial budget for the project; the remaining $176 increase is a result of the supplemental appropriation.
“Obviously, we were not happy that we had to go back and ask the community for more funding, but the alternative was so bad that as a board, we felt we had no other choice,” said Robert J. Mauceri, a nine-year member of the Board of Selectmen. “To get to the original budget, we would have lost state aid because we would have been forced to reduce the scope of the project.
“In the end, if we lost $15 million in state aid, local taxpayers would still be shouldering the same burden, but in the end, they would get far less of a project for their money.”
Local officials hope to open the new high school in September 2014 and the renovated middle school the following September, said Charles Carucci, chairman of the North Reading Secondary Schools Building Committee.
If all goes according to plan, the entire project will be completed in December 2015, including athletic fields and landscaping, added Geof Simons, chairman of Invest in North Reading, a ballot question committee formed last year to rally support for the project.
He noted that construction crews already have poured the footings for the new high school and are erecting the building’s steel frame.
Friday’s special election was the second of two steps required to keep the scope of the project intact. At Special Town Meeting on March 18, voters signaled their support for the secondary schools campus by a wide margin, with 525 favoring the supplemental debt exclusion and 120 voting against it.
“If this question had not passed, we would have been looking at drastic cuts because for every dollar we cut, we would have lost about 50 cents in state reimbursement,” said Simons. “So, in order to reduce the net price of the project by $15.5 million we would have had to cut as much as $20 to $25 million. Those kinds of cuts, probably 20 percent of the project, would have been devastating.”
According to Carucci, the end result would “not have been what the town had voted for” in March 2012, when residents approved a $107.7 million project. The revised budget for the secondary school campus is nearly $122.7 million.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority is expected to cover about $47.7 million of that amount, or 51.5 percent of eligible costs. Local taxpayers will shoulder the balance, expected to be about $75 million, up from an anticipated $60 million a year ago.
The latest funding request was based on a guaranteed maximum price that factors in current market conditions and includes “soft costs” such as architectural expenses, project management costs, and contingencies, said Town Administrator Greg Balukonis. The Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and School Committee all had voted unanimously to recommend approval of the supplemental funding request.
When completed, the integrated middle and high school campus on Park Street will serve 1,370 students in grades 6 through 12. The 136,410-square-foot campus will address the deficiencies of the town’s 57-year-old high school, which officials say is overcrowded and in need of technological upgrades, modern science laboratories, and other improvements. At the middle school, modular classrooms will be replaced with permanent ones.
The plans call for renovating and constructing an addition to the middle school and erecting a new high school on adjacent land. The addition will house common core facilities for the two schools: a cafeteria, library, gymnasium, and auditorium. The existing high school will be razed.
The secondary schools project will complete the town’s overhaul of its public schools. Over the past decade, North Reading has addressed the needs of its three elementary schools, said Simons, who has also served on each of the ballot question committees for the elementary school projects, beginning in the mid-1990s.
“It’s so satisfying to see this come full circle,” Simons said.
Correction: Because of inaccurate information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect figure for the total number of students the new facility will serve. When completed, it will be able to accommodate 1,370 students.