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By Doug Fraser - Cape Cod Times
July 17, 2012

HARWICH — Selectmen voted unanimously Monday night to put an article authorizing the borrowing of $64.7 million to build a new regional high school on an Aug. 28 special town meeting warrant.

Earlier in the evening, the Monomoy Regional School Committee unanimously authorized borrowing the $64.7 million. The school committee's vote set in motion a timeline in which Monomoy Regional member towns Harwich and Chatham now have 60 days to approve that borrowing.

The school committee made cuts right up to the final bell, reducing what had been a $65.2 million total project cost by approximately $500,000 by cutting the bleachers, concession stand and press box from the $2.1 million athletic field and track.

Edward McManus, school building committee co-chairman and a Harwich selectman, said they hoped fundraising would be able to pay for those items over the next couple of years as the school is being built.

Monomoy interim Superintendent Carolyn Cragin more cost savings could materialize as the design phase continues and estimates become more accurate. But the $64.7 million figure will be the one on town warrants and election ballots as the maximum figure.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority will fund 51.5 percent of the cost of construction if it approves the project at its meeting on July 25.

After Monday's meeting, McManus said the state building authority went over the financials of the Monomoy project and said he believes the vote on July 25 will be little more than a formality.

The building authority's grant reduces the school's price tag by $29.7 million. Of the remainder, Harwich would pay $25.2 million and Chatham $9.8 million, apportioned according to the two towns' share of the total anticipated enrollment.

Realizing that both towns would have to approve the borrowing by a two-thirds majority vote at Chatham's Aug. 27 and Harwich's Aug. 28 special town meeting, followed by a majority vote at a Sept. 6 election in each town, selectmen and school committee members expressed concern about how they could educate the public on the particulars of the project.

Some said they believe there is no turning back.

"If not now, when? And if not this, what?" posited regional school committee member Terry Russell, who called the project a "golden opportunity" for the town.

Fellow committee member Jeffrey Dykens, of Chatham warned that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has many other towns wanting the money and that if voters don't approve the project it will be a long time before the towns are again on a grant list.

"There is no other near-term alternative," Dykens warned. "We need to bite this apple ... or we'll go to the bottom of the barrel."

In an interview before the selectmen's meeting, Harwich Finance Committee Chairman Albert "Skip" Patterson remained skeptical of the price tag and the need for a $64.7 million school.

Patterson said the towns should examine other alternatives, like renovating existing schools.

But Cragin pointed out at the school committee meeting that Harwich hired consultants in 2003 who determined that it would cost $25 million to renovate the existing high school.

After Monday's meeting, McManus cited the lopsided 766-21 vote by Harwich voters in 2010 to create the district. Building a new school, he said, was part of the package. The consequences of not authorizing the borrowing could mean more state sanctions, given the condition of the existing high school, and another step on the road toward possible loss of accreditation, he said.

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