Cumberland proposes $83 million school improvement plan

Cumberland proposes $83 million school improvement plan

CUMBERLAND – The Cumberland Town Council, by a 7-0 vote last Wednesday, approved an $83 million school bond referendum to go before voters, with several members agreeing that the state’s school improvement initiative may be a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

School Committee Chairman Ray Salvatore said the town hasn’t “seen that kind of synergy in years,” with both the council and the School Committee working together to compile the proposal.

Sen. Ryan Pearson, who had met with town and school officials weeks earlier to lay out the urgency of coming up with a potential spending plan, issued a statement after the vote.

“Fixing our schools across the state has been a priority of mine for several years since chairing a Senate task force that recommended the actions we are now taking to address a lack of investment for decades that have shortchanged our students and teachers,” he said in a statement.

“With the legislature on the verge of approving an aggressive $1 billion plan to repair or replace schools all across the state, I am excited that Cumberland will be a first mover and leader ensuring modern school facilities. This truly is a unique one-time opportunity given new state incentives that I have fought for to save Cumberland taxpayers money while ensuring our facilities are the best they can be.”

With the new state incentives, Cumberland’s $83 million investment will be covered up to 65 percent or more by the state, meaning the local obligation would be only $29 million, said Pearson.

“It is imperative for Cumberland to move quickly to secure this funding saving $16.6 million versus the cost without the additional state incentives,” he said.

Pearson thanked Councilor Scott Schmitt for making an amendment that helped secure a 7-0 vote on the ballot measure.

Schmitt asked a number of questions, most centered on what he would tell taxpayers the next day if they asked how much the spending plan will cost them. He eventually proposed an amendment nixing any bond vote if the town’s eventual state reimbursement ends up being lower than 50 percent, a figure that is about 10 percent higher than it is currently. Schmitt said he saw no incentive by approving the bond with a limit at 40 percent.

School Committee member Paul DiModica urged councilors to pass the $83 million proposal to repair schools, allowing voters to decide in November. With various bonuses factored in as part of the tentative $250 million spending plan at the state level, reimbursements could go as high as 68 percent, he said. The $83 million, if entirely approved at a later point, could end up costing the town between $28 million and $30 million, he emphasized.

Councilor Tom Kane commended everyone involved for their hard work on the plan, saying it’s an “exciting proposal” that may never be on the table again. Councilors Bob Shaw and Lisa Beaulieu also congratulated everyone for uniting on the plan, with Shaw saying elected leaders were put in positions to act in the best interest of the town.

Proposed projects in Cumberland schools include upgrades to boilers, building new secure vestibules at the entrances to schools, complete with bullet-proof glass, and modernizing learning spaces, among many others. Facing an imminent state deadline, school officials said they worked quickly to come up with a finalized list to present to the state. They emphasized the proposal is full of well-researched needs, and was not carelessly thrown together.

Officials said it’s still not known whether the state would reimburse Cumberland after money is fully expended on projects, or whether money would come back as projects proceed.

Mayor Bill Murray said there’s no question that the state proposal to bond $250 million this year for school repairs, if passed by the General Assembly, will take a lot of pressure off Cumberland. He said there are still many questions to be answered.

Prior to the vote, Schmitt said he would have liked more time to review the “humongous document” provided by school officials. He said he wasn’t disagreeing with it, but wanted to do his homework first with so much money at stake and so many questions to be answered. The 50 percent threshold added as an amendment seemed to satisfy Schmitt’s concerns.

Shaw said many questions wouldn’t be answered unless the council pushed the spending plan forward.

Kane emphasized that the vote was simply to get authorization from the General Assembly to put an $83 million bond on the ballot. Many variables need to be addressed before officials know the final price tag of improvements, he said, but Cumberland shouldn’t lose its place in line if the larger reimbursements do come about.

Pearson thanked local leaders, particularly DiModica and Beaulieu, “for quickly leading their respective bodies to this point.”

Pearson said it was a “proud day for Cumberland” when leaders got “behind a bold plan that saves taxpayers money, improves our school facilities and truly positions Cumberland strongly in its quest to become a “Top 5” district.

He urged taxpayers to vote yes for both statewide and local Cumberland school construction bond questions in November.