MERRIMAC — The Pentucket Regional school system's buildings and grounds improvement costs are rapidly approaching the million-dollar mark this year, and participating towns — not the state — will have to pick up the tab.
"The MSB (Massachusetts School Building Assistance Program) no longer reimburses towns for outside improvements and repairs," said Superintendent Paul A. Livingston of the Pentucket Regional School District. "They've left it up to the individual towns."
Meeting with the Board of Selectmen this week to explain the rising repair costs, Livingston placed some of the blame on a new state building code adopted this year that deals with safety issues.
"For example, the new code now specifies the allowable space between bleacher seats to prevent little ones from falling through," he said. "But it doesn't seem to make sense to replace the bleachers that we only use three or four times a year."
Additionally, the outdoor track has run afoul of the regulations, because the individual lanes are not wide enough to meet the requirements. Even if the school proceeded with a proposed $500,000 resurfacing job, the track would still not qualify for use in competition.
"Not only are the track lanes too narrow," said Livingston, "there's no place for shotput competition."
Tennis players are not exactly having a ball on the school's courts either, as the original layout failed to take into account the possibility that at certain times of day the sun might pose a problem.
"The tennis courts are supposed to be positioned so that the sun doesn't shine into a player's eyes," explained Livingston. The question of whether the tennis courts were constructed on a cloudy day, or by a contractor unfamiliar with the sun's daily path across the sky, was not addressed at the meeting.
As for funding these pricey projects, Livingston suggested a bond anticipation note, which would require paying only interest for the first two years. School districts seeking funding through the MSB must consider all possible cost-efficiency measures.
"The School Committee tries to take debt that we already have and look to the next things we have to do," he said. "Because of the great low interest rates that we have available to us, we thought we could get that work done now and just carry the debt into the future."
According to Livingston, the tennis courts and bleachers can be repaired, "but the track, which is in a wet area and would require some drainage, could be rebuilt to qualify for use in state track meets, and we could get some good use out of it."
Livingston added, "I know the School Committee was concerned that the Board of Selectmen was not particularly in favor of this project."
Selectman Rick Pinciaro was quick to respond, rhetorically asking: "Are we going to spend a half-million dollars on a new track, when a potential high school renovation and possible expansion might impinge on the track area?"
"I'm concerned that we're going to ask the taxpayers to spend $500,000 on a new track, when the due diligence has not been done," added Earl Baumgardner.
Livingston countered, noting that "we've looked at the bleachers, we've looked at the tennis courts, and we've looked at the track. This is using a debt vehicle that we've used in the past."
"It would have to go out to bid," he added, "and we'd have to get an engineering estimate, but it's a way to take advantage of debt that we already have, and we can lock in the bond anticipation note for two years."
After some discussion of these matters, the Merrimack Board of Selectmen approved a motion to reconsider the track replacement and repairs of the tennis courts and bleachers.