Letter to the Editor – Rowley Board of Selectmen on the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical Building Project

Tuesday January 16, 2024

Letter to the Editor – Rowley Board of Selectmen on the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical Building Project

On December 13, 2023, the unelected members of the Whittier District School Committee voted to hold a “district-wide” election on their $444.6 million dollar proposal to rebuild the Whittier facility. The election will be held on January 23, 2024, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Thus, all registered voters residing in the Whittier school district (consisting of Haverhill, Rowley, Ipswich, Georgetown, Groveland, Newbury, Salisbury, West Newbury, Newburyport, Amesbury, and Merrimac) will soon have the opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” on this proposal.
While we all support the concept of vocational education, there are many reasons to dislike this proposal:
(1) the project cost, currently estimated at $444.6 million dollars, will make the project the third most expensive school construction project in the country and the most expensive in Massachusetts;
(2) as proposed, the existing building, which has served Whittier well over the years, and was declared structurally sound in Whittier’s assessment of the building, would be demolished, resulting in the need for a new building, athletic fields, and an access road; the demolition will occur even though the building’s roof was replaced in 2010, at a cost of approximately $3.3 million;
(3) the new building is not projected to serve more students than the current facility;
(4) while the existing building will require code upgrades if the project is not approved, one can reasonably question why school officials allowed the building to fall into a state of disrepair, especially since many of the deficiencies were identified in the 2015 facilities assessment;
(5) under the terms of the Whittier District School Agreement, Rowley and the other member communities not named Haverhill will be required to unfairly subsidize the City of Haverhill for its use of the new building (almost 70% of students at Whittier come from Haverhill); this subsidy will continue until 2058 for the life of the bond;
(6) Although the fact is not stated in the ballot question, a “yes” vote will result in the approval of a project which has not been funded. Unlike the vast majority of municipal and school public building projects approved in Massachusetts, approval of this project will not be contingent on the passage of a debt exclusion under the provisions of Proposition 2 and 1/2. This means that the member communities will be required to pay the costs of the borrowing out of their existing budgets i.e., by cutting services. In Rowley, passage of the proposal will likely result in across-the-board cuts to town services, and will be fiscally ruinous to the Town.
(7) Approval of the project will divert scarce dollars away from other pressing needs in Rowley, including overnight fire coverage, as well as the Triton regional school system (which is also in need of renovation). Rowley sends over 700 students to Triton each year. Last year in 2022 we sent only 23 students to Whittier.
(8) It has become evident that the existing agreement governing the Whittier school system is broken. Adopted in 1967, before the enactment of Prop 2 and 1/2 in 1980, the agreement does not reflect the real-world conditions faced by Rowley and the other member towns/cities. The agreement can theoretically be amended, but amendments can be blocked by a single member, even if that member (Haverhill) has a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. The agreement also does not give the member towns any role in the appointment of their representatives to the district We would be unwilling to give Whittier the authorization to borrow close to a half-a-billion dollars until these problems with the existing agreement have been corrected.
(9) We have recently learned that a high-priced political consulting firm with connections to the Mayor of Haverhill has been retained to deliver a “yes” vote for Whittier. According to published news reports, the consulting firm’s contract has been funded by local trade unions and “the general contractor on the Whittier School Project, Consigli Construction”. A spokesperson for the “Yes” for Whittier Campaign has been quoted as saying that it is a “normal practice for construction companies and labor unions to fund campaigns promoting school building projects that they’re involved with.” While that assertion may unfortunately be accurate, it is a sad commentary on our conflict of interest laws. Rowley voters should bear in mind that they will be stuck with the bill for this project long after Consigli Construction has moved on to the next project.
For these reasons, we, the undersigned members of the Rowley Board of Selectmen, respectfully urge the registered voters of Rowley to go to Saint Mary’s Church on January 23, 2024, from 11:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M., and vote against the proposal. Say “No” to Whittier.
The Rowley Board of Selectmen
Cliff Pierce, Chair
Christine Kneeland, Vice Chair
Deana Ziev, Clerk
Robert Snow
Sheri David

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