After three failed attempts to persuade voters to back the costs of a new elementary school, the Carver school district paid a consultant about $15,000 to develop a strategy to build community consensus on the need for new elementary school space.
With the consultant’s help, the schools conducted an online survey of residents’ attitudes toward the issue, analyzed and posted the results, and then held two focus groups with participants representing different groups, including seniors, families with preschool children, and opponents of the previous building proposal.
But the district’s outreach campaign is far from over.
The School Committee and Board of Selectmen agreed recently to create a new ad hoc committee, or working group, to continue “going forward” to find a way to build a new elementary school. The new group will include representatives from both boards, plus members of the public. Selectmen agreed to appoint two of their members to the new panel.
“Our plan now following the focus groups is to continue the conversation toward finding a viable solution to address the building needs that the community will support,” said School Committee chairman Lance Kennedy.
Kennedy said he believes it was worth spending approximately $15,000 on the consultant.
“What it has ultimately done is got the conversation going, and we needed an outside party to make that happen,” he said Tuesday. “It started the necessary conversation to see change happen.”
Last year voters narrowly turned down a nonbinding referendum to approve a state-backed $45 million project to build a new elementary school by saving elements of the old school and adding new construction. With only 20 percent of the town’s registered voters going to the polls, the vote was 912 opposed to 882 in favor, with 61 blanks.
Two earlier votes to support spending on new elementary school space also failed narrowly while the state’s School Building Authority sought a yes vote from voters as a condition to lock in its financial backing, and the town’s two adjacent elementary buildings continued to deteriorate.
But while school officials are emphasizing creating support through better communication and community involvement, some voters say the plan was too expensive and the cost of building a new school is a problem for taxpayers.
“The whole sticking point is how we’re going to pay for it,” said Arthur Borden, a civil engineer who attended one of the focus groups.
Borden said he opposed last year’s proposal to build a part-rehabbed, part-new school on the Carver Elementary School’s current site because a less expensive alternative is available. He said the town could save money by building a new school using a state-approved model school plan on town land next to Carver High School on South Meadow Road, reducing the project’s cost from $45 million to between $30 million and $35 million. The state encourages towns to save on planning costs by using its approved model school plans.
The state had pledged to pay $27 million of the $45 million school proposal that voters refused to back last year. School officials estimated that project would cost taxpayers on average about $100 more in property taxes each year. But Borden said building a new school on a different site would trim about $1 million from the town’s contribution.
Selectwoman Helen Marrone, who won election this spring by promising to listen to voters better than town officials have in the past, said the emphasis should be placed on keeping costs down. She said the town should decide how much taxpayers can afford to pay before designing a new school.
“We should determine what we can afford and then work our way into a plan,” Marrone said. “So far we’ve worked the plan first and then worked out the money.”
Marrone praised the focus groups as “the first positive step” in bridge-building among competing groups.
“The school system has been working on its own,” Marrone said. “The Finance Committee does their thing. The taxpayers have their own philosophy. . . . My hope is we could create a group of all the parties to bring the community together and get this rolling.”
The need to “get rolling” has only grown, school officials said.
“We’re bleeding money,” Superintendent Elizabeth Sorrell said after a boiler burst a gasket the day after school opened this fall. “There’s a crisis every single day.”
The Carver Elementary School’s two buildings have outlived their life spans, Sorrell said. Compressors for the heating and air-conditioning systems are failing and can only be replaced at a high cost using specially-built units because the technology is outdated. The buildings’ windows cannot be opened. Their concrete block wall classrooms have only two electrical outlets, limiting the use of computers, she said.
The school district’s community survey demonstrated that the need for a new school is widely appreciated. Of the survey’s 950 participants, 79 percent expressed “an overwhelming result that we need to do something,” Sorrell said.
But only 38 percent of the respondents said they voted in the election.
“We need to get people engaged,” Kennedy said. “There are 1,900 students in the Carver schools. Their parents alone represent a lot of voters. If they came out and voted, we’d have a new building.”
The focus groups run by consultant K12 Insight also demonstrated a widespread awareness of the school’s problems.
Roger Shores, a local cranberry grower, said the focus group he attended expressed general agreement on the need for a new school.
“Building a new school is what the taxpayers want to do,” Shores said. “It was just the process a lot of the taxpayers didn’t agree with.”