NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 15, 2014

Upgrade to athletics facilities to be discussed

Funding plan to go before Town Meetings for voter approval

BY JENNIFER SOLIS
CORRESPONDENT

---- — WEST NEWBURY — Voters who want to learn more about a proposed $2.6 million upgrade to athletic facilities for the Pentucket Regional School District, before funding the plan is considered at Town Meetings, can attend an informational session at the high school this week.

Project consultants Gale Associates will lead the meeting, slated for tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.

Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen is touting his “Athletic Complex Revitalization Plan” as a way to “transform the tired and, in some cases, unusable facilities” for track, tennis, softball, field hockey and outdoor practice.

Pentucket’s new business manager Greg Labrecque says he has designed a way to fund the project without any additional cost to taxpayers. But the former Groveland finance director is getting pushback from a member of the school board who represents the town he used to fiscally manage.

The Pentucket district is made up of Merrimac, West Newbury and Groveland.

As part of his ongoing strategy for “building a world-class education experience,” Mulqueen seeks to improve the district’s secondary school campus with an 8-lane track with grass infield and six tennis courts ($1,642,229), and fields for softball ($324,034), field hockey ($309,114) and all-purpose ($351,998.) The total estimated cost is $2,627,375, including 10 percent for contingencies.

Voters will consider Labrecque’s three-pronged approach for funding the new complex at Annual Town Meetings on April 28.

Voters will first be asked to revisit a vote taken in 2012 (which authorized spending up to $700,000 to repair or renovate the track and tennis courts on the secondary campus) because the consultants have indicated the intended work could not be completed for that amount.

Instead, the district wants to broaden wording for the authorization beyond just track and tennis to allow the funds to be used for “athletic field improvements, acquisition of land and construction and development of the athletic plan.”

The money is part of an $800,000 bond set to expire that was used to replace the middle school roof. These are funds that “were already within the school revenue stream,” so the district is simply looking to reauthorize the amount into a different area within the budget, Labrecque said.

The $700,000 would be combined with $1.4 million on a second warrant article. Labrecque proposes using revenues from student athletic fees to make the annual pay down on this debt from borrowing.

“If you are a resident without a student paying the fee, this has no effect on you as a taxpayer,” Labrecque said.

The third revenue prong of his plan is $495,000 within the district’s omnibus budget transferred from a supplemental reserve account the state established when Pentucket faced some fiscal troubles in 2006. Statutorily, this money can only be used for capital projects on the regional campus.

The first two articles require approval in all three towns; the omnibus budget needs just two of three towns.

Groveland’s Doug Gelina is standing firm as the lone member of the School Committee objecting to the plan. He argues that voters were promised in 2012 that the $700,000 was all they would be tapped for to fix the track and tennis courts. “Then this new financing was proposed and I was outvoted 8 to 1,” said Gelina, calling the move a break in trust with taxpayers.

Gelina contends that using fees to pay for a project that only benefits some sports is unfair, because of the wide range in fee amounts students pay (between $200 to $800 annually depending on the sport) and the fact that some won’t benefit from the upgrade because they play indoor sports.

Gelina would rather see the $700,000 applied to something educational in which the whole student body could benefit, such as purchasing mobile tablet computers for every student in every class.

At a budget meeting last month, West Newbury Selectman Bert Knowles Jr. said he’d like the $700,000 targeted toward a planned roofing and boiler replacement project at the middle school instead. That way the district would need to make a case to taxpayers specifically for additional funding for the new direction the athletic upgrade has taken. That was a debate voters should have, insisted Knowles, adding that any matching funds received from the state for the middle school project still could be applied to the athletic complex project to bring down costs.

In another warrant article, Pentucket is asking Town Meeting voters for $ 1.7 million to replace the roof and boiler at the middle school. The project, slated for a 50.79 percent reimbursement grant from the state’s School Building Authority, must be approved in all three towns.

The School Committee chose to use the $700,000 in this way, Labrecque said. To do otherwise “would have just adjusted the borrowing for the fields project up by that amount.”

Mulqueen sees the upgrades as improving Pentucket’s value for the community and is eyeing a possible high school renovation project and “large-scale” improvements to the football field and grandstands as a next phase.

“Every step we take brings our schools closer to a world-class future,” he said in a press release last week.