Expansion of overcrowded Shrewsbury High School debated

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Expansion of overcrowded Shrewsbury High School debated
The Select Board voted to send a Statement of Interest to MSBA to potentially expand Shrewsbury High School. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY – The Select Board voted, 3-2, on April 9 to approve sending a Statement of Interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to potentially expand Shrewsbury High School (SHS).

Although the School Committee unanimously approved submitting the SOI on March 13, the statement required the Select Board’s approval to be considered. This is the second year Shrewsbury has submitted an SOI to expand SHS, but last year’s project was not selected by the MSBA. The Select Board approved last year’s SOI unanimously on March 28, 2023.

The SOI is non-binding, and Shrewsbury does not commit itself to anything by submitting the statement. The SHS project will now be entered into the MSBA’s extensive review process. The MSBA could fund a significant portion of any chosen project.

While all Select Board members agreed that it is important to support the schools, questions about the project’s potential financial implications led to the close vote. Select Board members John Samia, Michelle Conlin and Carlos Garcia voted to send the SOI.

“It was eye-opening to hear about the inability to expand programs and electives, because I know that those opportunities are where students are able to find their passions that they will then make a career out of in the future,” said Garcia, who is also an SHS alumnus. “Having the honor to sit here today, I want to do what I can to ensure that those behind me are also able to receive an excellent, quality education. The needs at the high school are much greater now than when I was there, which, to me, underscores why the expansion is so critical.”

A recent review of the district’s buildings revealed that Shrewsbury High School was most in need of an upgrade. The high school was designed in 2002 to hold 1,475 students, which is equivalent to 1,250 students by today’s design standards. The school was over capacity by 2006, and at its peak in 2020, the school held close to 1,900 students. Space is at a premium in the high school, with 99% of classrooms full in any given period; some trophy cases have been turned into offices.

In addition to mentioning how any expansion might help Shrewsbury strengthen vocational-technical programming, Conlin said that “there’s no question whether our high school needs to be expanded — it’s just a question of when.”

She added that, “costs only increase over time so delaying the process will inevitably cost more for taxpayers. This non-binding SOI gives us the opportunity to have the state pay roughly half of the cost of an expansion.”

Select Board Chair Beth Casavant and Vice Chair Theresa Flynn voted against sending the SOI.

“My reason is purely financial,” said Flynn. “We will need to ask the town for an operational override in the next few years. Without it, there will be significant cuts across town and school services. I am concerned with some people’s willingness — and more importantly, some people’s ability — to pay it. I consider a successful override critical.”

Flynn and Casavant acknowledged the school was overcrowded, and said their votes were not intended to be anti-SHS stances, but rather, indications that more financial analysis and thinking must be done prior to any action.

“Nobody is talking about the scope, what it would cost, and how we would pay for it. This expansion would be one of our town’s most substantial capital projects,” Flynn said.

According to Flynn, the project would include an estimated 80,000-square-foot addition, roughly twice the size of the new Police Station, and is projected to cost around $140 million. Even if the MSBA funds 50%, the town would pay $70 million, roughly the cost of the entire Maj. Howard W. Beal School, which the district received MSBA funding for.

“Last year I voted to support an SOI. We are now one year closer to needing to ask the community to support an operational override. Our agreement said we would not be back for four years, and we will exceed that promise, but funds are not limitless, and the town is not exempt from the rising costs of doing business,” Casavant said. “In a perfect world, I would say yes to everything that has the potential to make our town better and improve the daily lives of our residents, but strategic choices need to be made.”

The ask for an override and funds for the SHS expansion would come at similar times, said Casavant, and although both options are “critically important,” she ultimately chose to prioritize the override.

Though Garcia, Conlin and Samia voted to send the SOI, they said they understood that the project would be a major financial investment. The April 9 vote was just to express interest, and should SHS be selected, there would be many conversations down the road about how — or if —money is spent.

“All we’re doing tonight — and I came back to this — is agreeing to submit an SOI. There’s no sure thing we can get approved. There’s no guarantee,” Samia said. “We don’t know whether we’ll be accepted at all… As part of the process, I’m OK moving forward with it… understanding that this is a first step, and I want to make a decision based on options that are actually available to us.”

“Community engagement is going to be critical when, and if, we approve this first step today. Ultimately, it will be the community that will make the decision on this project,” Garcia said.

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