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Panel seeks a second Town Meeting vote on school project

Two weeks after a Special Town Meeting in Hanson rejected a plan to build a new elementary school, proponents have decided they want to try again.

The School Building Committee agreed last week to ask the Massachusetts School Building Authority to allow the town to hold another Special Town Meeting to consider the $58.4 million project, which calls for replacing the Maquan and Indian Head elementary schools with a new school.

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The panel of officials from the town and the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District reached the decision in its first meeting since the Oct. 7 Special Town Meeting vote not to authorize funding for the project. The tally was 303 in favor and 221 opposed, short of the two-thirds majority needed because the funds would be borrowed.

“The feeling of the building committee was that the project is still the most economically feasible and educationally sound for the town,” said Craig Finley, assistant superintendent of district operations and a building committee member.

The authority had committed to funding $29.4 million, or 59.17 percent of the project’s eligible costs, money that the town is now at risk of losing. The town had planned a special election next month to take up a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, to pay the town’s share, but the vote will not take place due to the Town Meeting outcome.

Finley said the request for another Town Meeting vote will be part of a letter the committee would be sending to the state building authority this week. It requires that within 10 days of a failed vote, districts submit a letter stating the outcome, why they think the vote failed, and a proposed remedy. The authority then decides whether to continue setting aside funds for the project.

In pressing its case for another Special Town Meeting, the building committee will cite specific circumstances the night of the meeting that it believes may have skewed the results.

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Finley said those include that the article was not taken up till about 10 p.m. or voted on until nearly 11:30 p.m. He also cited the heavy rain that night, the coincidence of a Red Sox playoff game, and that the meeting took place during the federal government’s shutdown, which may have heightened voter unease about the economy and spending money.

Additionally, Finley said that the unusually large turnout for the meeting — held in the middle school auditorium — resulted in many voters having to be seated in the gymnasium, where they felt “disconnected from the regular meeting.” He said the parking lot also filled up, possibly preventing some from attending.

“We feel it’s important to take the opportunity to request of the MSBA an opportunity to re-present it to the community with hopefully less of the mitigating factors present,” he said.

Should the building authority agree to let the proposal be placed again before voters, the Special Town Meeting would probably be held in January, with a special election, if needed, in late February or early March, according to Selectman Stephen Amico, a member of the School Building Committee.

The new school would serve 800 kindergarten through fifth-grade students from the existing Maquan and Indian Head schools and would provide space for a preschool center serving 60 students from Hanson and Whitman. It would be built on the site of Indian Head School.

The Maquan, on School Street, currently serves 349 kindergarten through second-grade students and all of the district’s 81 preschool students. Indian Head, across the street, serves 413 third- through fifth-grade students. Officials say the two buildings, particularly the Maquan, have significant facility needs.

Selectman David Soper opposes the plan and the decision to seek another vote.

“I think the voters have spoken,” he said. “Quite frankly, I’m a little disappointed that the building committee is not recognizing what the voters said at Town Meeting, which is that this project is just too expensive at this time for them, with the economy being the way it is.”

Passage of the debt exclusion would add $615 to the annual tax bill of an average home assessed at $307,400.

“They need to come back with another plan,” Soper said. “What they [voters] wanted were other options.”

But Amico said that the alternative to building a new school — renovating the Maquan and repairing Indian Head — would cost Hanson taxpayers $33.6 million, more than the $29.4 million they would spend under the new school option. And with a new school, “it’s going to be 25, 30 years before you have to do any kind of updates.”

“I was kind of shocked that it didn’t go through,” he said, noting that the Town Meeting action deprives residents who were not in attendance that night from the chance to vote on the plan at the ballot box.

Amico said that in addition to uncertainty about the economy and the government shutdown, the plan was hurt by the fact that there was limited time to educate the public about it, noting that the building authority’s vote was on July 31. He said some voters also did not understand that under the state rules, the town could only come to them with a single plan, not a menu of options.

“I think it’s foolish for us to stop now because we’ve spent a lot of time . . . and taken this to the point where we even have the approval of the MSBA,” he said.

Amico said, for him, the plan is worth supporting even though his own children have already gone through the school system.

“I feel it’s my obligation as a resident of the town and a taxpayer that I give my neighbors’ children the same opportunities my children had,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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