EDITOR'S NOTE: This story and the accompanying headline were altered on Wednesday, March 23, for the following reasons. The headline and text were adjusted to reflect precisely what the March 21 vote decided, in response to a Hopkinton Patch reader's request.
The voters have spoken against a new school on Fruit Street. The no’s had it at Monday night’s special Town Meeting, 517 to 418. A two-thirds majority was required to move forward.
A yes would have changed the town elementary schools from the current model to three K-5 school districts. All children in town go to the same schools, one for Kindergarten and first grade, a second school for second and third grades and another for fourth and fifth grades.
The Hopkinton Elementary School Building Committee proposed a new school on Fruit Street to replace Center School as the most cost-effective solution. With the Mass. School Building Authority agreeing to fund 44.7 percent of the total cost or $14,673,527, Hopkinton's cost would have been $23,364,391 for the new school.
The town now has 10 days to come up with a new plan or lose the funding, Andrew Wailgum of the School Building Committee explained.
"This plan must be consistent with the existing plan and any major change would require a new MSBA approval ," Wailgum said. In other words, the MSBA would require a new K-5 building on Fruit Street, which would mean Hopkins and Elmwood would also become K-5 schools. The pre-K would also move to Fruit Street.
Center School is now 83 years old and has seen better days. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jack Phelan estimated that in the past 10 years taxpayers have spent $900,000 on upgrades to Center School.
“Replacing Center School is not a want, but a necessity,” said Cindy Bernardo, ballot question representative and President of the Hopkinton Parent Teachers Association. "The delay could cost the town the $14 million grant as the MSBA will just give it to another town. Asking for an alternative plan at this late stage is an insult to our educators. This is the right time to vote 'yes' right now.”
Glen Layton of the "no" camp said one of the main reasons he, and others, are opposed is due to the way districting would divide the town.
"This would only benefit one-third of our children," he said.
Layton also said he thinks the town can come up with a better plan for replacing Center School.
The existing plan does not include the cost of making Hopkinton's Hopkins School (now Grades 4 and 5) or the Elmwood School (Grades 2 and 3) into K-5 schools or making their facilities equitable with those of the proposed school on Fruit Street.
Superintendent Phelan and the Hopkinton School Committee have said making the other schools K-5 schools would be a one time cost of less than $200,000. That cost, they said, will be offset by annual savings from transportation and other costs of $130,000 per year.
But the cost of making the schools equitable for students from their respective districts also concerned those opposed to the new school.
One voter was appalled that only one plan was presented.
“If my management team came to me with this large expenditure and had only one option, I’d send them back to work on three options,” the person said.
Other opponents cited the bad economy, lack of community support and the tax burden on Hopkinton residents as the reasons they were voting "no."
The "yes" camp focused not only on the poor conditions of Center School - children now wear winter coats indoors on the first floor, T-shirts on the upper floors - but also the opportunity that the offer of close to $15 million from the state provides and the expectation of low construction costs in the current economic climate where contractors are willing to bid low so that they can get to work.
After a three-hour discussion with both sides having ample time to present their views, there was a call to move the question.
With the "no"s prevailing, many wonder, now what?
First, the town will vote at the ballot box on approving the plan March 28. This approval or rejection is separate from the special Town Meeting vote which did not approve a debt-exclusion to pay for the school.
If that vote is also negative, the plan is probably finished, although an interested party, in accordance with town bylaws, can request another special Town Meeting.
If the March 28 vote is in favor of the school plan, another Town Meeting will still need to convene - in accordance with town bylaws and MSBA deadlines - and approve a debt exclusion to pay for the school.
A debt-exclusion is an override of tax-limiting Proposition 2 1/2 that ends when the debt is retired. (By comparison, a Proposition 2 1/2 override is a permanent tax hike.)
Plan B, those who developed the Fruit Street plan have said, is to start over.