Building Schools in Lakeville

LAKEVILLE–Yard signs around town this spring carried a hopeful message: “Build a School. Build a Community.”

Of course it’s never that easy–to build a school or a community. Even less so when there are two communities involved. If it were entirely up to Lakeville, a comfortable middle-class town near the southeast coast, a new school undoubtedly would be in the works for their expanding grade-school population. But because of a regional school agreement, Lakeville residents can’t go it alone–they need the cooperation of Freetown, their neighbor to the south. And people in Freetown don’t always see things the way people in Lakeville do.

The Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District is governed by a six-member school committee (three members from each town). The towns are governed, as always, by separate town meetings. By long tradition, town meetings are exercises in parochialism; in most places in Massachusetts local decisions are made with happy unconcern about what people in the next town are doing. Regional schools, though, can complicate matters. Beyond the town lines, is there a larger community with a common interest?

The boundaries are blurred by the very fact that Freetown holds its town meeting in Lakeville–at Apponequet High School (“Home of the Lakers”), which serves both towns. The auditorium there has 509 seats, and when Freetown residents came out on a Saturday afternoon in May almost all the seats were filled. Rumors had circulated that Freetown might vote against the regional school district’s plan to build a new $24 million middle school on the grounds behind Apponequet High. (The project called for another $11 million to renovate the high school.) There was even word Freetown would entertain a motion to pull out of the regional district.

School officials and consultants began the meeting with a presentation that featured a video with three-dimensional animation showing what the newly designed campus would look like. The financial figures were detailed, and the state program to reimburse the towns for 72 percent of the costs was noted. But when a motion that the vote on the school plan be taken by secret ballot passed 226 to 182, it looked as if school proponents may not have turned out enough supporters. The debate lasted almost two hours. John LaRonda, proprietor of John’s Auto Body in East Freetown, spoke for the opposition. “All of us would like to spend as much as we can spend,” he said. “But then reality sets in.” Mr. LaRonda and others argued that brand-new modernized buildings are not as important as the programs that are offered inside. “I don’t want someone to tell my kid that to build a community you have to build a school,” he added.

“I don’t want someone to tell my kid that to build a community you have to build a school.”

School backers noted the overcrowding in the current middle school (954 students in a building designed for 750) and urged voters to consider the favorable interest rates and the potential for state aid. They argued against sentiment that the new school would mostly benefit Lakeville, which has had faster growth in school enrollment. “When does it stop being ‘I’ and when does it start being ‘we’?” asked Rogerio Ramos, a former member of the regional school committee.

The vote was taken shortly after Mr. Ramos spoke. Residents were required to check back in at the front table, whereupon each one was given a pink paper ballot, perforated in the middle, with YES on one side, NO on the other. They then cast their ballot in a box at the front of the auditorium, as Moderator William White looked on with two uniformed police officers by his side. When the vote was announced just before 5 o’clock, the “yes” side prevailed 251 to 145. School expansion supporters cheered.

But that was only the first step. Lakeville residents would still have to approve the plan in their town meeting, and then both towns would go to the polls on May 16 to approve a “debt -exclusion” override of the Proposition 2 1/2 property tax limit. The objective was to get all the necessary approvals and then to submit a proposal to the state by the June 1 deadline.

The Lakeville town meeting had no trouble with the plan at its May 11 gathering. The size of the turnout was similar to Freetown’s, but there was less contentiousness in the air. When it came to a vote, the matter was approved with a show of hands. The auditorium became a sea of pink cards held high. Only a dozen or so voted “no.”

Lakeville had an easy majority at the polls May 16, as well: 817 voted in favor of the school plan while 441 voted against. The sticking point came when Freetown’s votes were counted that night. The proposal was narrowly defeated, 689 to 612.

By law, a town has 90 days after a town meeting to hold a debt-exclusion vote, and there is no restriction on how many votes can be taken. So, the Freetown Board of Selectmen, seeking “a second opinion,” as Selectman Robert Robidoux put it, scheduled another vote for June 22. That one was defeated by a large margin: 1376 to 758. It is possible that school officials will try again next fall or spring, perhaps with a scaled-down proposal. In the meantime, the project will have to wait at least another year to be added to the state’s priority list.

What accounts for the differences between Lakeville and Freetown? Both towns are statistically similar–close in population, close in median income, etc. But somehow Lakeville seems to have a leg up. It has a stronger commercial sector (including the headquarters of Ocean Spray) and, with the extension of commuter rail service to town, expects continued growth. “There is feeling between Freetown and Lakeville–not so much animosity, but like a competitiveness or slight resentment,” explained Freetown Selectman Robidoux, who is a teacher at the regional high school. “People in Freetown are constantly told they can’t afford to do things,” he said.

Because Freetown hasn’t had the growth in student population that Lakeville has, “Freetown has never really identified with the problem,” said Stephen Furtado, director of instructional services for the regional school district. Mr. Robidoux pointed to a leaflet campaign in Freetown the night before the townwide vote that contained, he said, inaccurate information. “In Freetown, for some reason, a lot of people do not trust the people who run the school,” he added.

Unvoiced, but perhaps a factor in some subtle way, is the fact that the regional school campus is situated in Lakeville, not Freetown. Could it be that Freetown would be more invested if the school were in its own town limits?

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Dave Denison

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And what of the idea of Freetown pulling out of the regional school district? That turns out to be a complicated–and unlikely–process. John LaRonda had proposed at town meeting to withdraw grades 5 and 6 from the regional district but the motion was tabled without discussion. For such a divorce to take place, the regional school committee would first have to approve it, then both towns would have to amend the regional school agreement in the town meeting. Thus, if only one town is dissatisfied with the regional agreement, the marriage is almost impossible to dissolve.

For now, it looks as if Freetown and Lakeville are stuck with each other.