Building Schools in Hopkinton

HOPKINTON–In towns and suburbs across the state, hard-fought battles over building new schools have become as common as crabgrass. But few towns have witnessed a debate quite like the one here this spring.

A long line wended its way outside Hopkinton’s uncharmingly named Middle/High School at 8 p.m. on the first night of the annual town meeting. On a cool, misty night in May, more than 900 people had turned out, though the main item of interest, the construction of an ambitiously designed–and fabulously expensive–new high school, had been designated the 59th out of 61 articles on the agenda.

High school students were busily hanging elaborate crepe-paper twists high above the floor of the school gymnasium, in advance of the senior prom. Down the hall, the auditorium was soon filled to its 750-seat capacity; and the overflow crowd was directed to the nearby cafeteria, where two closed-circuit televisions were set up. As it turned out, the meeting decided to take up the high school question as the first order of business for the following night, making this the rare town meeting at which almost a thousand people were in attendance to approve routine bylaws and transfers of available funds.

The next night even more people came out. The auditorium and the cafeteria had filled up by the 7 p.m. starting time, and the line outside was lengthening. Town Moderator Bruce Karlin conferred with school officials and police officers about how to handle the crowd. By the time Mr. Karlin gaveled the meeting to order, noting there were about a hundred people still filing in, officials had filled the main auditorium, the high school cafeteria, the band room, the chorus room, and the middle-school cafeteria. In all, eight rooms were in use by the night’s end, each one hooked up with a television and kept in contact with two-way radios on loan from the police department. There would be more than 1,700 people voting when it was all said and done, which according to Police Chief William McRobert, a town resident since 1956, was the largest turnout in modern town history “by a factor of three.”

A vote had been taken the previous night that suggested majority support for building a new high school: Opponents had pushed for the final decision to be made by secret ballot but by a slim margin (492 to 466) did not prevail. Still, a bare plurality would not be good enough to win town meeting approval of the school. State law requires a two-thirds majority for a town to take on debt; and the project at hand would be financed with 20-year bonds. The drama on this crowded night was whether the school proponents would be able to get more than 66 percent approval.

Critics did not dispute the need for the school, but objected to the apparent grandiosity of the proposal. With the town’s middle school and high school combined in the same building, and with the town’s student population growing, something had to be done. But to some eyes, Hopkinton officials were shopping for a Range Rover instead of a Ford Explorer. Attention was drawn especially to the athletic center, which would feature two basketball courts and an indoor track. The school itself would be designed for 950 students. The total pricetag: $34.7 million.

“We’re a town that’s full of doubting Thomases,” said Peter Markarian, head of the high school building committee, in making the presentation for the project. Mr. Markarian argued that because of the way the state pays for school projects it will be cheaper to build a new high school while using the existing one as a middle school than to renovate and expand the current building. With the expected 63 percent state reimbursement, Hopkinton will only be spending about $12 million out of the $35 million total. Mr. Markarian noted that the proposed high school auditorium would only hold 300 people–because “other than for meetings like this, they’re not used a lot.” But the athletic center would hold more than 2,000 people. “It’s a shame we don’t have it today,” Mr. Markarian said.

It is not an easy thing to hold a discussion among 1,700 people in eight separate rooms. (Superintendent Michael Ananis said the closed-circuit TV hook-ups were a snap; the hard part was finding enough chairs in the building to seat that many people.) Moderator Karlin gamely made a point of checking in by radio with his appointed floor leaders in each location. Most of the comments came from the main auditorium. As one would expect, there were complaints about the impact of the project on property taxes (Mr. Markarian estimated it would mean an extra $145 per $100,000 of house value in the peak year). As well, there were detailed discussions of the width of doors and hallways and, two hours into the meeting, a brief explanation of the “cohort survival method” used in projecting student population.

The arguments remained civil for the most part, although Gerard J. Rivell caused a small stir when he charged school proponents with conducting a “re-education” campaign “a la Pol Pot and Mao Tse-Tung.” Mr. Rivell identified himself as a West Point man and a former principal in Duxbury. “It’s not about bricks and mortar,” he said, distilling the lessons he learned in his public school stint. “It was really about good teachers and good programs.” He challenged residents to “stand up and vote against this.”

Some speakers ranged far afield. “What I’m afraid of is debt,” a former banker incongruously declared. He held the audience’s attention until he announced, “For the past 20 years I have studied prophesy…” Another resident noted there would be plenty of money for schools if the United States would cut the military budget: “We have so many nuclear weapons.…”

Others came to the defense of town officials. Deran Garabedian, a Hopkinton High School senior and president of the student council, spoke of the crowded conditions in the school. Irked by Mr. Rivell’s remark, he said he had learned about Pol Pot and Mao Tse-Tung and saw no connection between a proposed new high school and murderous tyrants.

Dennis Keefe, a member of the town’s appropriations committee, argued that the athletic facility was extravagant. “It is not reasonable, ladies and gentlemen, and not supporting it does not mean people do not support education,” Mr. Keefe said. But the argument that carried the day was made just before 10 o’clock as the meeting was getting ready for a vote. Anne-Marie Sullivan, a former member of the school committee and an earlier school building committee, recounted the debate seven years ago about expanding the current Middle/High School. Due to fears of spending too much, she said, the project was scaled back and fell victim to a “nickel and dime” mentality. In the long run, she argued, it did not prove wise. Townspeople didn’t trust their leaders on that question, Ms. Sullivan said. “Please trust these people,” she appealed.

Mr. Karlin’s appointed counters then began to record a standing vote in each room. Residents had to hold up a green card they had been given at the sign-in table to ensure only registered voters participated. When the votes were reported, the final tally was 1,291 in favor of the new high school with 417 against. The motion prevailed with a 75 percent margin. The 1,708 people who voted represented 23 percent of the town’s registered voters–more than some towns get at the polls in a municipal election.

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But there was one more hurdle. To issue the bonds for the project would require a townwide “debt-exclusion” override election, as required by Proposition 21/2, the property tax limitation law. Here, a simple majority would do. When Hopkinton went to the polls two weeks later, the new high school won by a 59 percent to 40 percent margin. (While almost a fourth of the town’s voters went to town meeting, a little more than half went to the polls.)

Hopkinton will build a new school. Groundbreaking is planned for next spring and the school is to open in September of 2001.