There’s a problem with the HVAC system at the Junior and Senior high school in Newmarket, and it’s making a high pitched squeal. This wing of the school was built in 1924, and Principal Christopher Andriski says the exposed pipes and vents make this screeching sound all the time. The noise, he says, is the system’s way of alerting the custodian. “He’s gotta manually push a button up there,” Andriski explains.
At town meeting day on Tuesday, voters in 10 school districts from Keene to Salem and beyond will be deciding whether to go ahead with costly school construction projects, despite an ongoing moratorium on school building aid from the state. Nowhere has paying for school building costs grown more divisive than in the town of Newmarket.
Here, there is asbestos in the ceilings and floors, which make renovations costly. Classrooms and hallways violate safety codes because they are too small. And, enrollment here is growing.
Despite the fact that similar proposals have been voted down twice before, Newmarket’s school board is proposing the town build a new school – a pricey endeavor.
The school board estimates a new school will run about $47.6 million which could ultimately increase average property owner’s tax burden by $1100 a year. In a town with modest incomes and a high tax rate compared to the rest of the state, that’s not going to happen without a fight.
“Most of the people in town agree we have to do something with the school,”says resident Amy Thompson. Thompson is on the town’s budget committee, and helps organize a Facebook group of Newmarket residents who are concerned about rising tax rates. She’s not on board with a new school.
“There's got to be a way, that we as common sense New Hampshire Yankees can figure out how to do this affordably and not overburden the taxpayers.”
The issue has gotten folks in town so worked up that Principle Andriski says he’s given more than 10 school tours to concerned residents, at least 3 tours to media outlets.
But the heart of the problem may not lie here in Newmarket, so much as in Concord.
For more than 50 years, New Hampshire’s general fund covered 30 percent of any public school construction in the state. Then, the recession hit.
From 2009-2011, the lawmakers agreed to take out bonds to pay school districts, instead of funding the construction up front. According to Mark Joyce, Director of New Hampshire’s School Administrators Association, it seemed at the time like the only way to balance the budget.
“I don’t think anyone thought through what the annual practice would produce. You make the debt bigger, and bigger and bigger. It created a huge long term problem,” Joyce says.
By 2009, the state was looking at about $585 million dollars in future school building payments over the next 30 years. That year, lawmakers and Governor Lynch agreed to put a two year moratorium on school building aid. Schools have been watching closely ever since.
Newmarket superintendent Jim Hayes says at first, the school board hoped to time its renovations or new school with the end of the moratorium. But then in 2013, lawmakers extended the moratorium for another two years. It could be continued once again, next year.
Now, Hayes says, it doesn’t make sense to wait any longer. The moratorium may not be lifted next year. But even if it were lifted, for the next twenty years, most of any available funds will be going toward paying off schools that have already been built. In the meantime, says Superintendent Hayes,
Mark Joyce says a lot of school boards are making the same determination as Newmarket: even without school building aid, they figure, it’s still cheaper to build now. Salem, Pelham, Mascoma Valley, and Keene all have substantial school building warrant articles up for a vote this week.
Mark Joyce calls this “pent up need.” “We have many school buildings that are in desperate need of repair or improvement,” he says, “and no relief in sight.”
Joyce says more than 50 percent of New Hampshire school buildings are more than 50 years old – the industry standard for replacement. But whether taxpayers in Newmarket and the 11 other districts will agree to cough up the more than collective $200 million they need to update their schools—that’s a question we won’t get answered until polls close.