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Concord-Carlisle high school project under fire

Concord-Carlisle school district officials awaited word from the state last week on whether their revised high school building project, halted abruptly in June after ballooning over budget, will now be allowed to proceed.

District officials say the $92.6 million project is back on track, but anger has built in the community over the project’s handling, and some residents contend that the project they voted to fund last year has spiraled out of their control.

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The Massachusetts School Building Authority suspended $28.8 million worth of grants on June 26 over concerns that the project had exceeded the scope of the original plans the state approved in the funding agreement. The district has spent the last month whittling the project back down to its original size, submitting revised plans to the state on July 26.

“We’re back on budget; we’re back on scope,” said Stan Durlacher, chairman of the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Building Committee. “Unless there’s some interruption . . . with protracted approval with what we submitted, we’re back on schedule too.”

In March, said Durlacher, the project hit its highest projected cost, poised to run between $15 million and $17 million over its $75.1 million building construction budget. Now, said Durlacher, that projected overrun has been eliminated.

If the state reinstates funding for the project, the district will submit design development plans to the state this month . If there are no further delays, the project will break ground this fall, and the new high school will be complete in fall of 2015.

The revised plans were presented Wednesday night at a meeting of the Building Committee.

‘It’s the same school that we voted on, and are excited about, and we’re anxious for it to be built.’

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Officials have ‘jumped through hoop after hoop to continue to ignore the vote of the people.’

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“I think the team in general has done an excellent job of snapping it right back into alignment with what the MSBA expected,” Durlacher said in an interview afterward.

Changes to the design of the school include separating and shrinking a gym that had been attached to the main building, scrapping an outdoor amphitheater, replacing cupolas with skylights, and minimizing the building’s footprint by reducing its height and length.

But while officials sounded an optimistic note about the building project, some residents said the suspension of funds was just the latest symptom of a botched building project that has been run with too little transparency and oversight by the community.

On July 27, Concord residents Lissa and Chris McKinney delivered to school and state officials a letter signed by 47 residents slamming the project’s management.

“Many citizens are upset that the building you are designing now is not the building described and touted at presentations just prior to the November [2011] vote,” reads the letter, which describes decision-making by officials as “a mockery to the stated goals and promises to the community.”

Much of the residents’ anger stems from the planned demolition of two bus transportation buildings, one of which was only recently paid off. There is a third transportation building that may face demolition later. The debt on that third building is still being paid for by the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District and the town of Concord, according to John Flaherty, deputy superintendent of finance and operations for the district. It won’t be paid off until December 2017, he said.

District officials touched off controversy last year when they announced plans to consider outsourcing transportation. At the time, officials said that the transportation buildings would probably be demolished to make way for the new high school, and that outsourcing could help close a budget deficit.

But school officials backed down on the outsourcing plan after parents questioned whether the move would save the district money, asked how the change would affect student safety, and expressed concerns about the bidding process.

The residents’ July 27 letter asks Superintendent Diana Rigby to seek state approval for site plan adjustments that would let the transportation buildings stand, calling it “an unacceptable waste of money and resources” to destroy them.

“We understand there’s opposition to the building project, and we understand that not everyone has all the accurate information,” Rigby said in an interview.

 She said it was up to the Building Committee to request changes from the state.

Durlacher declined to respond to specific grievances laid out in the letter, but said that at this point, the Building Committee has no plans to ask the state for the requested site plan revisions.

“There are no active plans within the Building Committee to ask the MSBA for anything that’s outside of the scope of the Project Funding Agreement,” said Durlacher.

Lissa McKinney,the Concord resident who authored the letter, said that if the school building project was up for Town Meeting approval today, she would never vote for it.

“They’ve cost millions and blown trust,” she said. “Instead of trying to heal those wounds, they’ve jumped through hoop after hoop to continue to ignore the vote of the people.”

On Wednesday night, some residents said they were concerned that changes were being made to the project plans without sufficient time for the community to review them.

“You need the trust of the citizens,” said David Allen, who signed the July 27 letter. “Unless citizens have an opportunity to consider the implications of these — some of them, apparently, not unimportant — changes, you’re going to have a very, very serious credibility problem, beyond that which you have now.”

Rigby said that the letter’s contention that the project has fundamentally changed since its approval by citizens was wrong.

“What was voted on was a schematic design — that’s a sketch,” she said. “The process of design development is to add all the details. It’s the same school that we voted on, and are excited about, and we’re anxious for it to be built.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.
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